L’incoronazione di Poppea – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Busenello [Sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Poppea – Louise Alder
Nerone – Rannveig Karadottir
Ottavia – Fiona Mackenzie
Drusilla – Anna Anandarajah
Seneca – David Hansford
Arnalta – Simon Gilkes
Ottone – Tai Oney
Lucano – Nick Pritchard
Nutrice – Angela Simkin
Liberto – Morgan Pearse
Fortuna – Filipa Van Eck
Virtu – Soraya Mafi
Amore – Joanna Songi
Royal College of Music Orchestra
James Conway – Director
Samal Blak – Designer
Ace McCarron – Lighting designer
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 1 December, 2012
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London
Monteverdi’s shabby little shocker in high places is a sitting duck for radical rethinking, and to update it to the dark days of communist Russia does as well as any other period of totalitarian tyranny, I suppose. The problem is, though, that to make his Soviet konzept stick, director James Conway feels obliged to weigh his production down with a huge amount of stage business. L’incoronazione di Poppea is by no means a delicate operatic flower, but the predominance of highly expressive half-aria/half-reiterative is a tough nut to crack in terms of creating character and emotional involvement – and, I’d have thought, a big ask for student singers. The productions that I’ve responded to positively have played down specifics of time and place to clear the decks for the compelling and hideous immorality of the plot, abstractly acted out by monsters and their victims who are themselves the staging, with sights firmly fixed on the concluding, gloriously reprehensible duet.
We knew we were in Soviet Russia because of the long red banners unfurled by Amore, Virtu and Fortuna during the ‘Prologue’ from the top deck of Samal Blak’s split-level set, a neatly choreographed hissy-fit that corruptly elects Amore as the winner. Ottavia and Seneca are of pre-revolutionary Russia and eminently disposable. Ottone seemed to be an old-style Russian army officer. The set is dominated by large panels that should have glided silkily but clunked clumsily to create various spaces and by a big bed that also needed to be moved around a lot, all done by the cast. The moves were terribly distracting.
I pitied Louise Alder, having to cope with Poppea’s progress from just-about pubescent jail-bait to pregnant wife, and in her blonde wig and baby-doll clothes she evoked too many comparisons with Violet Elizabeth Bott, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Grayson Perry in mid-transformation mode for comfort. What you did not get was any sense of a woman, driven by annihilating ambition and lust, hitching her wagon to a loopy, capricious despot, be it Nero or Stalin. The dalliance in perverted sexuality just got in the way of Poppea’s brilliantly plotted ascent to power, and, if Nerone was a tyrant, he was here a pretty anonymous one.
On the purely talent-spotting front, Louise Alder and Rannveig Karadottir sang relentlessly loud and proud as Poppea and Nerone, needlessly so in the small Britten Theatre, and neither was entirely at home with the pliant ebb and flow of Monteverdi’s decorative style. Neither, though, was as loud as Simon Gilkes’s Arnalta (Poppea‘s nurse), an astonishing vision of Russian babushka cum Les Dawson in fright drag, who bellowed much if his music then gave us a touchingly crooned lullaby. Arnalta’s other solo, as she contemplates her rapid social rise, was directed without much humour, so no respite there. There was a touch more style and refinement to Fiona Mackenzie’s Ottavia, again with the volume set rather high.
I was greatly impressed by the countertenor Tai Omey as Ottone. He may have had a slightly shaky start, but most of his singing was of a very high standard, with easy, stylish and Italianate ornaments and attractive voice underpinned by a secure technique and natural stage presence. Smaller roles stood out, notably Morgan Pearse’s warmly sung Liberto, Nick Pritchard’s intensely realised Lucano, a touchingly sympathetic Nutrice from Angela Simkin and a strongly performed Fortuna from Filipa Von Eck.
The RCM Orchestra produced a generic period buzzy sound, but, like the production, Michael Rosewell’s conducting needed more attack.James Conway’s staging is a co-production with English Touring Opera, of which he is general director, and ETO will be reviving it next year. I am not holding my breath.