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.
L'incoronazione di Poppea - Teatro Real Madrid, 24 May 2010
You don't expect singing of subtlety and elegance from Danielle de Niese and, unsurprisingly, you don't get it here. But you can practically see the steam rising from her squirming, panting Poppea. No-one is going to topple De Niese from her perch as the reigning queen of baroque sluts any time soon. She dominates the stage every time she steps on it.
Prom 18: The Coronation of Poppaea - Glyndebourne Festival Opera - Royal Albert Hall, 18 July 2008
Having decided I'd rather spend four hours in a comfy(ish) seat with a decent view than straining my stilettos to peer through the crowd, I forked out £21 for a choir stalls seat, behind the stage. This isn't always a great place to sit for big orchestral concerts, right on top of timps and tubas which can drown out every other sound.
But for this semi-staged performance of Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppaea (yes, the English title despite being sung in Italian) I ended up mere inches from the action, and what's more, the orchestra were behind the singers. The best seats in the house? For one night only, possibly.
Robert Carsen's original Glyndebourne staging was swagged top to toe in red velvet. The Royal Albert Hall couldn't quite stretch to that, so instead we got a few draped objects scattered strategically around the stage >>>>>
Normally when Glyndebourne visits the Proms, it brings a full sized orchestra with it, so the singers end up squeezed on to a sort of landing strip in the middle.
But with the 20-odd musicians of Emmanuelle Haïm's tiny band shoehorned on to the front of the stage, there was plenty of space left for what turned out to be one of the most complete operatic stagings I've seen at the Proms, not much 'semi' about it at all.
It opened with a cringemaking and redundant bit of comedy 'business': Virtue (got up as a nun see left) and Fortune (glamorously evening-gowned) arguing in the front row of the Arena - from where they were invisible and inaudible to most of the audience (except us lot in the choir, nah). Did the director not realise the audience would be standing?
Equally irritating was the way Cupid - written into only a couple of scenes - loitered around the stage throughout like a wasp at a picnic. It may have made sense in the Glyndebourne staging, but it didn't transfer to the Proms. I shall now remember Amy Freston for her annoying arrow-waving intrusion rather than her brief but excellent singing.
Emmanuelle Haïm directed the pared-down Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from the keyboard, in thinly-scored, unfussy and beautifully translucent arrangements.
Although she'd trimmed the score here and there, only one full scene was sacrificed. I wished she'd pruned more ruthlessly - or at least upped the consistently stately pace here and there. It was a hot fuggy night, half the audience hadn't heard of deodorant, and there there several moments I just wanted her to get on with it.
Vocally, the main draw was Alice Coote, and she didn't disappoint as the coolly psychopathic Nero, a butcher in a dinner suit. An opaque and less intense performance than Coote often gives, but just as enthralling.
While her idea of acting secksy is as subtle as a stag party strippergram, the voice had more colour and gleam than previous exposure had suggested. As she pouted and squirmed and ground her sturdy thighs into the prone Nero, the difference between the two performances became painfully obvious though. Coote wants you to believe in her, utterly; De Niese just wants to be admired. Poppea is more than a firecrotched party girl; she's a schemer who uses her body as a tool to pursue her broader ambitions. De Niese's dramatic skills didn't stretch this far. But otherwise, the role didn't tax her limitations, and she was one of the best things about the evening.
Iestyn Davies sang Ottone with remarkably secure tone and excellent projection - definitely one of the few countertenors with the ability to fill a space the size of the Royal Albert Hall. He bravely sidestepped a cheap laugh, and didn't allow the female disguise he sported for Poppea's attempted murder to overshadow the implications of this desperate act.
Just as well really, because there were men in frocks to spare. Though neither could resist dipping into mannerism, some of the best vocal performances came from the character singers Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Queen Motherly Amalta and Dominique Visse as the Mrs T-like Nurse.
Tamara Mumford as a Nepregko-lookalike Octavia and Marie Arnet as Drusilla also gave able performances, and only Paolo Battaglia's desiccated and uncomfortable-looking/sounding Seneca really disappointed. Cruelly costumed in a thick tweed suit, he must have been envious of the many other characters given dramatic licence to cavort in their underpants on this steamy night. Nero's, Ottone's, Amalta's, Lucan's - we saw 'em all.
The only evidence of airconditioning was the noise it made, like hobnailed elves dancing in the pipes. Now that's one area where the Arena really does score - for some reason it's noticeably cooler than the seated areas on the hottest days.
Listen to the whole concert for the next 7 days on Radio 3 here.
A few reverse-angle photos - the only real disadvantage of the choir seats:
On present form, English National Opera may be cr@p at, er, opera, but they retain a peerless genius for looking on the bright side, as the surgically enhanced press reviews on the publicity blurb for their dreary Coronation of Poppea demonstrate:
What ENO heard: 'Kate Royal shines vocally as Poppea.'
What THE EVENING STANDARD said:'ENO has pulled together a strong cast of highly promising young British singers, including Lucy Crowe and Tim Mead, elegantly conducted from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings. The problem was that they all seemed to be in the wrong roles, with none really bringing Monteverdi's spellbinding, and outrageously immoral last opera alive.'
What ENO heard: 'ENO has pulled together a strong cast including Lucy Crowe and Tim Mead, elegantly conducted from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings.'
What THE FINANCIAL TIMES said: 'The entire show is an empty conceit that confirms Chen as an adherent of the Robert Wilson school of direction: one style fits all. Pity the poor cast. A few of the singers summon enough voice and personality to shake up Chen’s dumb-show: step forward Robert Lloyd’s charismatic Seneca and Lucy Crowe’s Drusilla, a performance of real vocal edge.'
What ENO heard: 'Robert Lloyd's charismatic Seneca and Lucy Crowe's Drusilla, a performance of real vocal edge.'
What THE DAILY TELEGRAPH said: 'Another major problem is that the Coliseum is too big for such an intimate opera. Some younger cast members (notably the deities in the prologue and Tim Mead's Ottone) lacked the vocal heft to project with any confidence – and I was hearing the performance from the best seat in the stalls. Doreen Curran's Ottavia and Anna Grevelius's Nero were sung with elegance and feeling, but seemed dwarfed by the space.'
What ENO heard: 'Doreen Curran's Ottavia and Anna Grevelius's Nero were sung with elegance and feeling.'
What THE TIMES said: 'I had the same response to it as I do to Jacques Cousteau’s gorgeous underwater films: a nearly irresistible urge to fall asleep. What did keep me engaged was Cummings’s surging, propulsive tempos, some really spirited continuo playing, and many fine individual performances.'
What THE GUARDIAN said: 'Drably conducted by Laurence Cummings, the score lacks a real dramatic pulse, while the casting is worryingly uneven. Kate Royal's Poppea certainly looks good in a bikini, but the production gives her no latitude to show us what drives this ruthlessly ambitious woman. She towers over Anne Grevilius's adolescent Nero, whose voice lacks the power and quality for the role. However, Doreen Curran makes a sexy, manipulating Ottavia, and Lucy Crowe a feisty Drusilla.'
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.