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Claudio Monteverdi
06 Oct 2014

L’incoronazione di Poppea, Barbican Hall

In Monteverdi’s first Venetian opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (1641), Penelope’s patient devotion as she waits for the return of her beloved Ulysses culminates in the triumph of love and faithfulness; in contrast, in L’incoronazione di Poppea it is the eponymous Queen’s lust, passion and ambition that prevail.

L’incoronazione di Poppea, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican Hall, London, 4th October 2014

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Claudio Monteverdi


The opera was first performed in 1642. Drawn from the annals of Tacitus, Francesco Busenello’s libretto for Monteverdi’s final opera reflects the mid-seventeenth-century Venetian Republic’s rejection of the mores of courtly aristocracy and its taste for earthy, popular themes.

Set in the reign of Nero, it depicts the irresistible power and tragic pathos of human love, as the passion of Nero and Poppea ruthlessly sweeps aside all hindrances and finds ultimate fulfillment in the Queen’s coronation. In the Prologue which precedes the three Acts, Fortuna, Virtù and Amor dispute which of them has most power. In this richly sensory and sensual performance by the Academy of Ancient Music under the musical direction of Robert Howarth, there was no doubt that Amor is justified in claiming victory.

Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson directed what was billed as a semi-staged performance: in fact, since there is little stage incident, there really was no need for a fuller staging. The ascending pyramid of chairs, raked behind the small, centrally placed forces of the Academy of Ancient Music, conveyed both the rigid hierarchies of the Roman Empire and the irresistible force of Poppea’s desire to reach the pinnacle of power. Evocative lighting emphasised the highs and lows of human conduct and morality (there were just a few moments when synchronicity of lighting design and dramatic action were less than perfect). The ritual formality of the performers’ first entrance combined with the bright, present-day costumes drew attention both to the historical reality and the astonishingly modern relevance of the drama. And, as characters pondered, plotted and interacted in the spacious forestage area, and moved at times among the audience, we were presented with a convincing, wide array of temperamental aspects of humanity.

The opera begins with the unexpected return of Ottone, Poppea’s husband, whom Nero has despatched to far realms on state business. Iestyn Davies, dressed in a white linen suit which suggested his simple loyalty and also his inherent weakness, was wonderfully expressive in his opening monologue, ‘Ah, perfida Poppea’. Lamenting his wife’s betrayal he swung persuasively between pain and wrath. Fully appreciating the way that Monteverdi’s innovative forms and intensely responsive musical language convey emotion, Davies skilfully communicated the later change in Ottone’s character. Despite recognising his fidelity, Poppea rejects Ottone’s love, in submission to her vaulting ambition, and Davies’ subsequent monologue of murderous intent was intensely dramatic. There were also some fine duets between Ottone and Drusilla, sung with warmth and brightness by soprano Sophie Junker. Junker’s joyful vivacity later gave way to tender reflection when their plot to kill Poppea was uncovered: confessing before Nero, in order to save Ottone from the Emperor’s wrath, Junker was both sensuous and vulnerable. Nero’s command that the plotters be exiled seemed a fair judgement.

Matthew Rose used his capacious bass intelligently as Seneca, the Emperor’s wise advisor, modulating his tone to convey both moral imperiousness and human humility. His warning to Ottavia to maintain her dignity and virtue in the face of Nero’s betrayal was beautifully phrased; in welcoming death, ‘Venga, venga la morte’, Rose inspired both admiration and pity. In a powerful scene with Sarah Connolly’s commanding Nero, the rapid exchanges had an impressive rhetorical power; both Rose and Connolly exhibited flexibility and control as the ever-changing line lengths conveyed the accumulating emotional force. In contrast, Seneca’s household’s sad farewell to their master had the expressive grace of a madrigal.

Tenor Andrew Tortise was striking as Poppea’s Nurse Arnalta. In the scene in which Arnalta warns her old charge to beware Ottavia’s vengeance, there was a striking contrast between Tortise’s calm wisdom and the fury of Lynne Dawson’s Poppea. Tortise sang the Nurse’s lullaby with gentle sweetness, but also injected a well-judged comic note in the final scene.

Mezzo-soprano Marina de Liso was superb as Ottavia: with finely nuanced phrasing and dark timbre she portrayed a truly regal suffering. In both of her principal arias, ‘Disprezzata regina’ and ‘A Dio Roma’, de Liso’s flexible declamation communicated the changing emotions within a lyrical continuity; chromatic nuances emphasised the pathos of her tragedy — it was easy to believe and understand contemporary reports of the power of Monteverdi’s music to stir the affections of his audiences and move them to tears.

This was a stellar cast and the principals were matched by fine singing in the minor roles. Tenor Gwilym Bowen, as Valletta and the First Soldier, moved and sang with naturalness, and demonstrated a pleasing, focused upper register. His comic scene with Daniela Lehner’s Damigella was a delightful moment of frothy light relief. Lehner also sang Amor, and having protected Poppea from Ottone’s murderous plot, gloried lustrously from the balcony.

Which brings us to the central passion-driven pair. With Anna Caterina Antonacci unable to take the role of Poppea as planned, Lynne Dawson might have seemed a strange choice of replacement. There’s no doubt that Dawson has had a varied and highly successful career over more than 30 years. Though best known for her Handel interpretations she has excelled in diverse repertoire; but, of late, it has been teaching, as head of vocal and opera studies at the Royal Northern College of Music, rather than singing which has been her focus. And, as the self-righteous, adulterous Roman queen, Dawson could not consistently summon the necessary vocal lustre. Although displaying a seductive lyricism when charming Nero to submit to her wish to have Seneca killed, her soprano lacked real, consistent weight and tone, and there were some technical blemishes in phrasing and tuning. This was a pity as it weakened the credibility of Nero’s passionate, single-minded commitment to his mistress.

Fittingly, Sarah Connolly was utterly authoritative and vocally imposing as the Roman tyrant, Nero. Responsive to every musical detail, physically commanding of presence, gleaming of tone and delivering Monteverdi’s organically evolving structures with sensitivity and suppleness, Connolly was a consummate portrait in blind self-conviction and egoistic assurance. Nero’s ecstatic celebrations following Seneca’s death possessed a wild beauty which was both seductive and deeply unsettling. In Connolly’s subsequent duet with Elmar Gilbertsson’s excellent Lucano, she demonstrated and effortless, florid vocal virtuosity, sculpting a highly dramatic idiom with repeated exclamations and exultations as Nero rejoices in Poppea’s beauty.

Directing the instrumentalists of the Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth (replacing the indisposed Richard Egarr) created a ceaseless flow of recitative, arias, duets, trios and laments, forming exciting contrasts. As Monteverdi’s formal arrangements constantly evolved, Howarth’s flexible control of tempo perfectly reflected the score’s changeability of mood and allowed for the ‘side-actions’ to be smoothly incorporated into the main plot. The wonderfully expressive theorbo playing of William Carter and Alex McCartney was punctuated by instrumental accompaniments which were by turns lyrical and lithe; there was some biting concitato incisiveness in the scene for the soldiers and during the interrogation of Drusilla before Nero.

Throughout the performance, the capacity audience were held transfixed, unmoving and utterly captivated. The seventeenth century aspiration to (in the words of Monteverdi’s biographer Leo Schrade) speak to the passions of men — and to depict the human reality of those passions in conflict — was wonderfully fulfilled.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Lynne Dawson, Poppea; Sarah Connolly, Nerone; Sophie Junker, Drusilla/Virtu; Daniela Lehner’ Amore/Damigella; Marina de Liso, Ottavia; Matthew Rose, Seneca; Iestyn Davies, Ottone; Andrew Tortise, Arnalta; Vicki St Pierre, Nutrice; Elmar Gilbertsson, Lucano/2nd Soldier; Gwilym Bowen, Valletto/1st Soldier/Highest Familiari; Richard Latham, Liberto/Middle Familiari; Charmian Bedford, Fortuna; Phillip Tebb, Littore/Bass Familiari; Robert Howarth, director; Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson, stage directors; Academy of Ancient Music. Barbican Hall, London, Saturday, 4 th October 2014.

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