If a successful production is one that is
greater than the sum of its parts, then, sadly, this production
does not succeed. There is much that is good and a little that
is excellent. However for me there is no complete whole. It
tries too hard to be ultra-modern at which, in part, it succeeds
spectacularly, but then loses sight of some aspects of the story-line.
As you know, this
opera was the first to be based on historical fact: involvement
and interaction of nobles and commoners with intervention from
the gods thrown in for good measure. It intersperses high drama
with comic interludes. The problem with this production is that
whilst the gods remain aloof, the class distinction, which is
important at various points, becomes blurred.
Whilst easy on the
eye and mostly secure of note, Cynthia Haymon’s Poppea is not
a sensual Emperor-eating animal. Gentle smooth understatement
with even a touch of the demure can be a schemer’s weapons but
there is no evidence of scheming here. Curiously, and this appears
a contradiction in terms - particularly when Brigitte Balleys’
Nerone is occasionally literally hands-on with Haymon - there
is greater sensual electricity in the interplay between Haymon
and the Ottone of Michael Chance. The final Haymon/Balleys climactic
duet which closes the opera is sung outwardly whilst at right
angles to each other until the last few lines when Balleys turns
to face in the same direction as Haymon. Very odd.
This is not Balleys
at her best. She does not always middle her notes and is inconsistent
in the use of her, not to be underestimated, power at forte.
Indeed my impression is that she is not all that comfortable
either in this role or in the directions she has been given
for it. Although with Haymon she uses all her acting skills,
curiously it is only when she is with, and kisses, the effortless
and enticing Lucano of Mark Turner, with the doubts that that
reveals, that you know she is indeed Nerone: not least because
of the superbly acted doubts about sexuality that that duet
Michael Chance is
excellent. Pained and put-upon. Rejected and blackmailed. This
is indeed the Ottone that Poppea plays with and rejects, Ottavia
threatens and Drusilla loves. Vocally mellow with good dynamics
and diction this is a seriously enjoyable vocal and acting performance.
Ning Liang’s scorned
Empress is full of dramatic intensity. She produces a beautiful
deep warm creamy tone that she then contrasts with a powerful
and highly coloured almost abrasive sound. However, whilst keenly
aware of her humiliation would she really have sought refuge
in the arms of Seneca? I think not. Their hug, whilst Seneca
sings his opening line, jars.
Drusilla is ‘the
girl next door’, well sung and played by Heidi Grant Murphy.
She is a splendid foil for Chance’s more complicated Ottone.
She floats her doubts to him and portrays well the simplicity
of uncomplicated love. Had Haymon’s Poppea been a more sensual
creature the contrast between them would have been heightened.
Harry van der Kamp
sings the role of Seneca: and that is it. This is van der Kamp
in a costume - with no cheap pun intended - not Seneca the Stoic.
He can produce some deeply resonant low notes but in the higher
reaches of his range, his voice becomes very light. No doubt
he was directed to be an almost static Seneca showing no real
emotion. However I prefer to see a slightly pompous tutor/guardian/adviser
who also is/becomes a resigned wise recipient of the order to
has either a natural, and/or a well-honed, comic talent, combined
with acting skills and no mean vocal ability. His Arnalta is
a convincing nurse despite his amazingly ridiculous costumes:
the last, if not all, looking more like a concept costume on
a way-out haute-couture cat-walk. The inevitable problem is
that when enjoying the prospect of his elevation to the nurse
of the future Empress he already out-dresses her, so his costume
belies his words.
that, is the Nutrice of Dominique Visse: a beggar-like cripple
with stick whose distinctive sharp timbre and dynamics with
similar splendid comic timing makes the most of a comparatively
Damigella ‘partners’ Claron McFadden’s Valletto which produces
some good vocal interplay. If McFadden’s words are not always
clear, she extracts every gramme of playful comedy in her opening
scene with Liang and van der Kamp. That said, van der Kamp’s
hairless visage makes a nonsense of the subtitled line, “I will
kindle a fire in your beard”. And would Seneca really have kissed
(even chastely) a page?
Piau also plays/sings
Amore, a role she relishes with ringing clarity of note and
some delightful slow trills. Elena Fink’s Fortuna is not the
best I have heard, there is too much vibrato whilst Brummelstroete’s
Virtue smoothly, if not particularly beautifully, fills the
And of course there
is a lot of theatre to fill. This also presents problems. When
facing, or being away, from stage-front the sound sometimes
reduces dramatically. Then, in some areas of the stage and with
some soloists there is an echo chamber effect. The variability
of sound is not helped by the musicians in the pit who from
time to time forget that they are supporting the singers and
not vice-versa, which observation applies far too often in the
The two discs divide
the opera neatly between Acts 1 and then Acts 2 with 3. The
first disc commences with an illustrated synopsis, a cast gallery
and also an introduction from van der Kamp and the stage director
Pierre Audi. It is a pity that the opportunity was not taken
to offer a commentary on Emi Wada’s costume designs that, with
a few exceptions, range from the extra-ordinary to the incomprehensible.