The Coronation of Poppea, ETO

performed last November
by students from the Royal College of Music. Now it
is revived, at the same Britten Theatre, but by English Touring Opera, as part
of its Venetian season. It made a still greater impression upon me than last
year; whilst the earlier cast had sung well and deserved great credit, the
professional singers of ETO seemed more inside their roles, as much in stage as
purely musical terms.

Conway’s production holds up very well. Its perhaps surprising relocation
of the action to a parallel universe in which a Stalinist Russia existed
without the prude Stalin — ‘just the breath of his world,’ as Conway’s
programme note puts it — provides a highly convincing reimagination of the
already reimagined world of Nero. ‘Stalin’s bruising reign convinced me,’
Conway writes, ‘that this was a place in which Nerone might flourish, from
which Ottone, Drusilla, Ottavia, and Seneca might suddenly disappear, and in
which all might live cheek by jowl in a sort of family nightmare, persisting in
belief in family (or some related ideal) even as it devours them.’ And so it
comes to pass, from the Prologue in which La Fortuna, La Virt˘, and Amore
unfurl their respective red banners, setting out their respective stalls, until
Poppea’s (and Amore’s) final triumph. Claustrophobia reigns supreme, save
for the caprice of Amore himself, here dressed as a young pioneer, ready to
knock upon the window at the crucial moment, so as to prevent Ottone from the
murder that would have changed everything. Samal Black’s set design is both
handsome and versatile, permitting readily of rearrangement, and also providing
for two levels of action: Ottavia can plot, or lament, whilst Poppea sleeps.
Conway’s idea of Poppea as an almost Lulu-like projection of fantasies in an
opera whose game is power continues to exert fascination, and in a strongly
acted performance, proves perhaps more convincing still than last time. Where
then, the blonde wig had seemed more odd than anything else, here the idea of a
constructed identity, designed to please and to further all manner of other
interests, registers with considerable dramatic power. The seeping of blood as
the tragedy — but is it that? — ensues makes an equally powerful point,
albeit with relative restraint; this is not, we should be thankful, Lady
Macbeth of Mtsensk
or some other instance of Grand Guignol. Above
all, the Shakespearean quality of Monteverdi’s imagination, unparalleled in
opera before Mozart, registers as it must. One regretted the cuts, but one
could live with them in as taut a rendition as this.

Michael Rosewell’s conducting had gained considerably in fluency from last
time. I feared the worst from the opening sinfonia, in which ornamentation
became unduly exhibitionistic — I could have sworn that I heard an
interpolated phrase from the 1610 Vespers at one point — and the
violins were somewhat painfully out of tune, my fears were largely confounded.
It is a great pity that we still live in a climate of musical Stalinism, in
which modern instruments are considered enemies of the people than the kulaks
were, but continuo playing largely convinced and string tone, even if
emaciated, at least improved in terms of intonation. For something more, we
must return, alas, to Leppard or to Karajan.

Moreover, it was possible — indeed, almost impossible not — to
concentrate upon the musico-dramatic performances on stage. Helen Sherman’s
Nerone displayed laudable ability to act ‘masculine’, at least to the
dubious extent that the character deserves it, and great facility with
Monteverdi’s lines, even when sung in English. Paula Sides proved fully the
equal both of Monteverdi’s role and Conway’s conception. Hers was a
performance compelling in beauty and eroticism; indeed, the entwining of the
two was impressive indeed. The nobility but also the vengefulness of Ottavia
came through powerfully in Hannah Pedley’s assumption, her claret-like tint‡
a rare pleasure. Michal Czerniawski again displayed a fine countertenor voice
as Ottone, engaging the audience’s sympathy but also its interest; this was
no mere cipher, but a real human being. Much the same could be said of Hannah
Sandison’s Drusilla, save of course for the countertenor part. Piotr Lempa
has the low notes for Seneca, though production can be somewhat uneven, perhaps
simply a reflection of a voice that is still changing. John-Colyn Gyeantey’s
Arnalta was more ‘characterful’ than beautifully sung, but perhaps that was
the point. Pick of the rest was undeniably Jake Arditti’s protean Amor, as
stylishly sung as it was wickedly acted. The cast, though, is more than the sum
of its parts, testament to a well-rehearsed, well-c0nceived, well-sung
production of a truly towering masterpiece.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Nerone: Helen Sherman; Seneca: Piotr Lempa; Ottavia: Hannah Pedley;
Nutrice: Russell Harcourt; Lucano: Stuart Haycock; Liberto: Nicholas
Merryweather; Poppea: Paula Sides; Arnalta: John-Colyn Gyeantey; Ottone: Michal
Czerniawski; Drusilla: Hannah Sandison; Amor: Jake Arditti. Director: James
Conway; Revival director: Oliver Platt; Designs: Samal Blak; Lighting: Ace
McCarron. Old Street Band/Michael Rosewell (conductor). Britten Theatre, Royal
College of Music, Wednesday 9 October 2013.

image_description=Photography: Richard Hubert Smith
product_title=Claudio Monteverdi: L’incoronazione di Poppea (sung in English, as The Coronation of Poppea)
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: A scene from L’incoronazione di Poppea [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith]