John Ramster’s production of Monteverdi’s
L’incoronazione di Poppea, performed in Shoreditch Town Hall by
Royal Academy Opera, is a brilliant illustration of Raymond Leppard’s
pithy summary. Updating the opera to a generic ‘present’, Ramster
sets out to impress upon us that this ‘shocking story of a psychopathic
despot and his gold-digging mistress [is] so fresh and current that it could be
taken from a sensational novel set to be published next month’.
With their Marylebone home currently undergoing major renovation and
re-design, the singers studying on the Royal Academy Opera programme find
themselves nomadic, and Shoreditch Town Hall is their fourth temporary home,
after performances at Hackney Empire, the RADA Studios and Ambika 3 ( May Nght).
Built in 1865, and with a heritage as one of the grandest Vestry Halls in
London, the venue was established as an independent arts and events venue in
2004. With its high ceilings, Italian marble panelled walls and Matcham style
balcony the Assembly Hall certainly evokes the soon-to-fade glories of Imperial
Rome, but the room presents some challenges — not least the proximity of
the motorbikes and buses which can be heard roaring through this regenerated
and ‘hipsterfied’ hotspot.
Designer Louis Carver does well to overcome the potential acoustical and
sight-line problems. He confines the action within a raised white cube, the
back-wall of which presents the shimmering blue and green plumage of a peacock,
its head turned to admire its own beauty. It’s a fitting image of Roman
pomp and pride, not least because the peacock’s meat and tongue were a
favourite Roman gastronomic delicacy and the bird’s glorious feathers
were a common decoration in mosaics and frescoes. But, more than that, Roman
mythology endowed the peacock — created by Juno from Argus, whose hundred
eyes symbolize the vault of heaven and the ‘eyes’ of the stars
— with the power to ‘see everything’, and here the tail
feathers create an air of tense ‘watchfulness’.
The protagonists — and there are a lot of them in Francesco
Busenello’s libretto — enter through apertures in the
peacock’s tail and side walls, and the stepped platform which raises the
singers aloft emphasises both the hierarchies of the heterogeneous Imperial
court and the courtiers’ propensity for self-adulation. Though
Monteverdi’s opera retells the story of Poppea’s rise to the
throne, it is more concerned with the psychological development of characters
who represent a wide range of temperamental aspects of humanity, and whose
complex and increasingly intense interactions raise timeless moral
Ramster and Carver make the connections and convergences clear, and the
complexities are unified by Jake Wiltshire’s vibrant lighting. Turquoise,
emerald and purple consolidate the affections portrayed, deepening to blood-red
at the end of each act, as first Seneca welcomes the violent death that awaits
him and then Nero and Poppea glory in their supremacy. Michelle
Bradbury’s costumes blend the majestic with the mundane —
there’s a lot of checked cloth, and some clownish pantaloons for Amor
— while the Tyrian purple sported by various soldiers, senators and
servants reminds us of the historic setting.
The opera begins with a Prologue which makes clear that the action we are
about to witness is the result of a three-way dispute between the goddesses of
Fortune (Slovenian soprano Nika Gorič), Virtue (mezzo soprano Katie
Stevenson) and Love (soprano Alys Roberts), which leaves the latter victorious.
The three singers introduced themselves feistily, their bright, clear voices
establishing a confidence and sense of entitlement which was shared by the
audacious mortals whose fates they design. Fortuna and Virtù’s duet
‘Human non è, non è celeste cor’ was refreshing and
lively, while Roberts’ crisp clarity confirmed her utter conviction that
the crown is hers and the World will change direction at her bidding. The
goddesses then settled down to view the salacious spectacle from the sides of
the stage. And, what a roll call of mortal dissipation, depravity and decadence
the seventy-five-year-old Monteverdi conjures in this, his last, opera.
We know, from Monteverdi’s correspondence, that the composer exerted a
strong influence on the form and character of the text, persuading Busenello to
add scenes and characters and, most importantly, to give pride of place to the
human affections. The year before Poppea was performed
Monteverdi’s Le Nozze d’Enea con Lavinia was presented in
the same theatre, the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, and while the
score is lost the Argomento in Badoaro’s libretto contains its
author’s remarks: ‘I avoided all farfetched thoughts and
conceptions and paid more attention to the affections as Monteverdi wished to
Similarly, in Poppea the real ‘subject’ is man and his
‘affections’. Ramster and his young cast presented the characters
with striking intensity and realism, giving us a wonderfully concentrated drama
of human passions in conflict.
At the centre of this conflict are the deluded Emperor and his adulterous
mistress. As Nerone, Canadian Eve Daniell used her powerful soprano with skill,
control and good judgement. Her voice is silkily rich, and as agile at the top
as it is secure and full at the bottom. Its clarity and beauty were piquantly
at odds with Nerone’s intentions. The appealing, bright sound
communicated the Emperor’s misguided optimism and assurance, as well as
his immaturity. Daniell captured the despot’s absolute self-absorption,
posing and strutting with the preoccupied narcissism of a modern-day reality-TV
contestant. The soprano was excellent in the rapid dialogue — indeed, the
cast’s Italian diction was uniformly idiomatic — and vibrant in the
stile concitato episodes, as in Nerone’s violent quarrel with
Seneca; while the florid passages, such as the duet with Lucano (William
Blake), were nimbly executed.
Emma Stannard was a veritable vixen as Poppea, viciously feline and
ruthlessly egocentric. Her mezzo soprano is magnificently rich and full, and
she knows how to control it — just as her Poppea knows how to get what
she wants. The first duet for Nero and Poppea flowed with intoxicating
sensuousness, though Ramster’s ‘gimmick’ — the lovers
sang their spicy ‘sweet nothings’ into their mobile phones, Nero
pleasuring himself while Poppea callously toyed with the desperate Ottone
— grew tiresome after a while.
Patrick Terry’s Ottone, returning from the remote regions whence he
has been despatched by the calculating Nerone, was a portrait of tentative hope
and confounded misery, superseded by violent vengeance. The countertenor
struggled to project the more low lying passages in this opening number but he
was moving as Poppea’s spurned lover, and agile in in the melismatic
word-painting, ‘Sogni portate a volo’ (Fly my dreams, into hers).
Ottone’s later monologue, in which plans to murder Poppea was affecting,
conveying both pain and implacable wrath.
I was impressed by Claire Barnett-Jones’s Ottavia: ‘Disprezzata
Regina’, in which Nerone’s neglected and rejected spouse swears
vengeance, was a convincing, burning portrait of an aggrieved wife and wronged
womanhood. The mezzo soprano showed control and flexibility in the short
phrases which convey Ottavia’s changing moods and ‘A Dio
Roma’ was full of pathos.
I had admired Barnett-Jones in British Youth Opera’s production of
Holst’s Riders to the Sea ( review),
writing that ‘Barnett-Jones’s declamation was grave and
transfixing, taking us compellingly through the inexorable journey, and
submission, to death; she sustained the vocal and dramatic intensity through
her long monologues … Barnett-Jones is clearly a young singer to
watch’. Her performance as Ottavia certainly confirmed this.
Timothy Murphy lacked the strength at the bottom necessary to convey
Seneca’s astonishing dignity, but the Irish bass baritone showed a good
sense of musical line when espousing his quiet philosophy in his scene aria
with Ottavia, and when renouncing all worldly desire and accepting his fate.
Warned by Pallade (Nika Gorič) of his impending death, Seneca knelt calmly
and welcomed his ascension to the heavens, ‘Venga, venga la morte’,
the deep red glow behind him, which sank into blackness, ominously embodying
his decease and destiny.
Arnalta’s tender lullaby was beautifully sung by Helen Brackenbury,
and her mezzo contrasted effectively with Stannard when the Nurse cautioned her
mistress of Ottavia’s jealousy. Spanish Lorena Paz Nieto exhibited a
thrilling shine to her soprano as Drusilla. Laura Zigmantaite (Valletto) joined
with Alys Roberts’s Damigella for a delightful duet which was a
refreshing moment of sincerity in an opera drowning in deceit.
Conducted by Jane Glover, in her last performance as the RA’s Director
of Opera, members of the Academy’s Historical Performance department
accompanied the cast, the instrumentalists moving stylishly and naturally
through Monteverdi’s diverse forms and idioms. The bass playing from
cellists Anne-Linde VIsser and Tabea Debus, alongside double bass player
Marianne Schofield, was particularly impressive: unobtrusive yet decisive.
The final all-conquering duet for the crowned lovers, ‘Pur ti miro,
pur ti godo’, was ecstatic and sweeping. Ramster had a twist in store for
us, though. The Monteverdi scholar Leo Schrade declared that ‘at the
close Poppea is the incarnation of love, and love Nero’s destiny’,
and it does seem as if lust, passion and ambition have won the day. However, as
Ramster reminds us, ‘This Union of Love and Ambition is a mere snapshot,
a moment in time, for all that it appears to be happy-ever-after’. So, as
Nerone and Poppea welcomed the admiring congratulations of their court, Amor,
squeezed between them, slumped to the floor — his victory an
‘empty’ one, as symbolised by the space between the two lovers.
Violence is the true victor here — Nerone will kill his empress —
as a pistol-pointing soldier behind the regal pair reminded us.
In his writings, Busenello praised Monteverdi as the man who brought music
in general, and dramatic music in particular, to perfection — a musician
whose art is immortal. Who, after this tremendous performance, would
Cast and production details:
Fortuna/ Pallade — Nika Goric , Virtù/ Venere —
Katie Stevenson , Amor/ Damigella — Alys Roberts, Ottone — Patrick Terry, Soldato 1/ Famigliaro 2 — Mikhail
Shepelenko, Soldato 2/ Mercurio — Alex Otterburn, Poppea — Emma
Stannard, Nerone — Eve Daniell, Arnalta — Helen Brackenbury,
Ottavia — Claire Barnett-Jones, Seneca — Timothy Murphy, Valetto
— Laura Zigmantaite, Druslla — Lorena Paz Nieto, Liberto/ Littore/
Famigliaro 3 — Dominic Bowe, Lucano — William Blake , Famigliaro 1
— Tristram Cooke; director — John Ramster, conductor — Jane Glover,
set designer — Louis Carver, costume designer — Michelle Bradbury,
lighting designer — Jake Wiltshire, Royal Academy Baroque Orchestra.
Shoreditch Town Hall, London, Friday 20th May 2016.
image_description=Image courtesy of Royal Academy of Music
product_title=L’incoronazione di Poppea, RAO
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above image courtesy of Royal Academy of Music