The Coronation of Poppea - ENO, 18 October 2007
It came as no surprise that there were a few boos for director Chen Shi-Zheng after tonight's premiere of his new English-language production of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione Di Poppea. (None of them I hope from his recent Monkey: Journey to the West collaborators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewett, in the audience along with Anthony Minghella.) The staging, however beautiful in places, often distracts from the music, and characterisation is elusive.
The splashy cartoon colour, the twirling Indonesian dancers, the PVC costumery are all familiar from Chen's ENO Orfeo last year. Does he see the two as some sort of 17th century Ring Cycle, or is he simply out of ideas? His fairytale approach fitted Orfeo's mythical world more readily than Poppea's prosaic wife/mistress conflict. More fundamentally, he simply didn't tell the story. The acid test of any production is whether you'd understand roughly what was going on if you didn't have the words - for this one it would be some feat.
Using only the simplest of elements on stage - back projected images and a raised ship's prow for the first act that tipped over to become a staircase in the second, the production relied heavily on its sweetie-wrapper costumes and spectacular dancers for visual effect.
At least Chen is a SpongeBob SquarePants fan -- the glamour of gleaming PVC and shimmering haberdashery was comically compromised by Empress Ottavia's mobile sea urchin throne and a completely inexplicable radio controlled neon snail -- and more elegantly interrupted by a sort of seafood ballet.
Laurence Cummings' musical direction, best in the vibrant multi-harpsichord continuo, was sensibly boosted to fill the cavernous Coliseum, but retained a respect for Monteverdi's timbres with gut strings and period bows and trumpets. That it lacked much light and shade was largely down to the need to keep it audible in a space this size.
Robert Lloyd's grave and resonant Seneca (right), by some distance the most fully realised portrayal on stage, stood apart from the froth and spectacle in his sober suit -- his suicide was the only point at which I came close to caring about any of the characters.
Kate Royal, in the central role of Poppea, had some great frocks, and like most of the female cast, some gratuitous underwear displays too. But I was never certain who she was supposed to be -- an ambitious schemer, a lovelorn mistress, or just eyecandy. And their position way above the stage in the first act lost both Royal and Nerone (Anna Grevelius) too much vocal resonance.
Baby Spice lookalike Lucy Crowe (left) proved a comic gem as neglected but faithful girlfriend Drusilla. Gamely clad in American Apparel undercrackers and a cellophane dress, her lush soprano journeyed from sparkling wit to touching pathos with equal brilliance.
The smaller parts were unusually well filled in this production. Brad Cooper, credited in the programme but not on the ENO website for some reason, displayed a sensational high tenor in the tiny role of Seneca's friend -- I hope ENO can find him something more substantial to do in the future.
In the end though, Christopher Gillett in his cross dressed and brilliantly camped up portrayal of Poppea's nurse Arnalta (below right) may be the lingering image of this unfocussed production.