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: