The Coronation of Poppea - King's Head, 12 April 2011
The greatest achievement of Opera Up Close to date has been to persuade London's tin-eared theatrical establishment that banging out variably-sung piano reductions in the back room of a pub is the Future Of Opera (bye bye all credibility, Olivier Awards). However those of us who get out of the house more often realise that it's been done before - and better - by any number of worthy small companies.
The Coronation of Poppea is the first production of theirs to break that mould. It's purposeful, musically convincing drama and - yes - genuinely novel. Instead of pruning the original until there's nothing but a bare husk left, it's been restructured and rearranged in a way that makes sense for today.
In place of tinkly-plinkly harpsichord and lute come piano, sax and double bass. Alex Silverman's jazzy arrangement displays a surprisingly flexible palette while remaining pretty much faithful to Monteverdi's harmonies, melodies and metre. Given that there's no definitive original score (just two differing versions, neither of which, following the custom of the time, is fully orchestrated) this doesn't seem an outrageous liberty to take.
There's also a bonus in the form of an extra aria written by Michael Nyman. Sung by Ottavia, hands dripping with blood, it's inserted before the final duet to warn that Nero and Poppea's love won't last long. My companion reminded me later of a party in Berlin where Nyman's music was played all night and there was nothing to eat but artichokes. This aria is not quite that strict - it's identifiably Nyman but flavoured with Monteverdi. In the context of a chorus-type interjection, the change of style seems not only appropriate but necessary.
Mark Ravenhill, who also directs, has written a new English libretto and rejigged the story in the process, cutting an hour or so of music. The excrescences of gods, goddesses and minor servants disappear, save for the questionable retention of the cross-dressing tenor nurse Arnalta (played by Adam Kowalczyk). Though everyone's in modern dress (or a crackling polyester Oxfam-ish version) Ravenhill tells the story straight. What is revealed is a lean, propulsive drama that focuses all the attention on the main characters - at least until it descends briefly into farce at Arnalta's appearance.
The new prologue comes courtesy of a foul-mouthed soldier (the versatile Adam Kowalczyk again). It's the only sweariness all night - no bad language at court, of course - and the first example of Ravenhill's marvellous gift for inflecting his translation with character without straying too far from the source. He keeps the style simple and conversational with plenty of repetition, so you don't miss a word. Clear diction all round is another great help.
ENO and West End veteran Rebecca Caine is a standout as Nero's spurned wife Ottavia. So too is Martin Nelson's dignified Seneca. Ravenhill has him slit his wrists on stage at the close of the first half - a trick so convincingly performed that a woman on the front row (just inches away from him) fainted. "I've never done that before," she told me afterwards, "but I just couldn't help it, it was so real". The other singers are at the start of their careers, and the cogs and wheels are a bit more obvious, but the singing is competent.
A thrust stage ensures all the audience is close to the action, though it's not elevated, so only the front row get a full view. They also enjoyed a refreshing shower - terrified faces all round - as the cast splashed rather too energetically in the bath-sized pool at its centre. Sitting near the back, I stayed dry, but missed everything that wasn't done standing up (which turned out to be quite a bit of the second half).
Here's a trailer, with some more photos (not mine; credit unknown) below.