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S & H Opera Review

Monteverdi ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’ Royal Academy Opera, RAM Period Instrument Baroque Orchestra, Laurence Cummings. Royal Academy of Music, Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Friday November 22nd 2002. (ME)

 

This production of Monteverdi’s last opera is the first of the Academy’s major endeavours of the season, bringing together a group of highly talented singers from both undergraduate and post-graduate courses, an authentic period instrument orchestra under an experienced conductor and harpsichordist, and a well-known director who assisted when the ENO presented the work in 2000. It proved to be a stimulating experience in every way, from the inventive production to the eloquent singing of even the most minor parts.

The seventeenth century audience expected to hear singers ‘recitar cantando’ – ‘speak through singing’ and it was this communicative, direct approach which William Relton’s production and Laurence Cummings’ musical direction most obviously emphasized. In such an intimate theatre, it is of course much easier to make the words and music tell than in a vast auditorium like the Coliseum, but it is also easy to fall into the mistake of making both the music and the stage action too cosy and chamber-like; here, we were enabled to witness the full decadence of the court of Nerone in performances which were full of vibrant, urgent life, and to hear orchestral playing which not only supported the singers but rang out with sharp-edged clarity.

Tacitus informs us in ‘The Annals of Imperial Rome’ that Poppea ‘had every asset but goodness… she seemed respectable, but her life was depraved,’ and Delphine Gillot’s assured, mellifluous singing and confident assumption of wantonness brought this venial but fascinating character to life. Rebecca Cooper’s Nerone was a strikingly assured performance; I especially liked her singing of ‘Ascendi, O mia diletta’ and her easy blending with Gillot during ‘Pur ti miro.’ This is a fine mezzo-soprano who is currently moving into soprano roles; a pupil of Diane Forlano and Jonathon Papp, she is a student from whom I will be very surprised not to hear more at the highest level.

A little occasional rawness and nervousness aside, there were many more performances here of striking quality for so young a cast, chief amongst them the Ottone of Owen Willetts and, though in much smaller parts, the Soldat / Famigilari / Consoli / Tribuni of Neil Williams. Owen is still an undergraduate, but he presented a fully thought through, sweetly sung and often exquisitely phrased Ottone, most pleasing in his ritornelli passages in the first act and touching in his scenes with Drusilla. Neil’s beautifully even, ringing tenor made one focus on him whenever he sang; this is clearly another name to look out for in future.

Louise Reitberger as Ottavia, and Jenny Ohlson, Drusilla, are both more experienced singers than many of the cast, and their confidence was strongly evident, especially in Louise’s dignified, elegantly phrased ‘Addio, Roma’ and Jenny’s winning assumption of a part that can sometimes prove insipid. Rebecca Bottone’s spirited Amore, full-toned and precise in diction, Shirley Keane’s convincing Valetto, Kevin Kyle’s ripely characterized Arnalta, Clara Mouriz’ sweet-toned Nutrice and, last but not least, Vassilis Kostopoulos’ sympathetic, sonorously voiced Seneca, completed an ensemble of unusual promise.

The RAM has a great advantage in that it can field a proper baroque orchestra for such occasions; the pair of harpsichords (including a wonderfully crystalline Feldberg) and chitarrones as specified in the score provided a continuo that echoed the youthfulness and immediacy of the singing, and the few wind and brass instruments were ideally balanced within the overall framework, the whole orchestra providing some genuinely exciting playing, especially at such moments as the Famigliari’s ‘Non morir, Seneca, no.’

Relton’s production was similarly vibrant; he had obviously borrowed a little from the ENO one, such as the scene where the lovers saunter on bearing pillows and Nerone gets dressed, although on this occasion the scene was naturally somewhat muted, since it would have been strange to see Rebecca Cooper’s Emperor in a similar state of nudity as that with which Daniel Taylor introduced himself at the Coliseum. Aside from such small touches, this was a fresh reading of the work, which brought believable characterizations from singers with whom the director had clearly worked with genuine unanimity of purpose.

The staging was strikingly simple yet effective, with large square platforms used for pillow-strewn beds or lonely shores as required, and employing a very clever, slightly surreal screen depicting a cloudy blue sky, used both to conceal and to entice the eye. Many of the production’s touches are now familiar to those who regularly attend modern opera productions; there was much deployment of sunglassed henchmen, some use of mobile phones, a fair amount of louche partying and somewhat delicately suggested debauchery, but the whole was done with such conviction and loving commitment that such matters did not jar as they can so often do. Costumes were a mixture of vaguely period-less drapings and beautifully muted modern dress set off by the occasional highly appropriate garishness.

The closing scene, with that wonderful duet (whether or not it is by Monteverdi himself) and the grandiose public display of power, was staged with some originality in that the Emperor and his acolytes were envisaged as B-list celebrities, reaching a peak of intentional tackiness when the first part of ‘Pur ti miro’ was sung as though at a Karaoke evening. This might appear shocking to those who prefer this exquisite music to be sung as a straight love-duet, but, as we were reminded by the apposite notes which appeared on the surtitles board, the love of Nerone and Poppea was a doomed one which ended with his kicking her to death. For the final part of the duet, however, we heard the words and music presented without accessories, ‘O mia vita, o mi tesoro’ sounding the right note of amorous bliss.

Melanie Eskenazi

Left to right: Clara Mouriz, Anna Dennis (Amori) Delphine Gillot (Poppea)
Rebecca Cooper (Nerone) Rebecca Bottone (Amore) Photo: Jonathan Docker - Drysdale.


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