Rivetting Poppea

16 Nov

The final Opera North offering in its autumn season in Newcastle was its new production of Coronation of Poppea on 15th November.  I don’t think it’s been seen here since the mid-70s when I think that Scottish Opera brought it for a single performance.  What interested me was that this performance was (a) watched by a pretty full house, which I very much doubt was case in the 1970s, and (b) cheered to the rafters.  It reminded me of exactly why Opera North is special.

The first and most important thing was that I felt that they got to the heart of how this piece should be done: as an intimate piece, with a strong text which the audience could understand.  And so we had an orchestra of eight on the stage, a strong translation, outstanding diction and no surtitles.  So we had that wonderful experience of being in a theatre where an audience is listening to the words, laughing at the jokes and doing so with a concentration that you get with a play.  I’ve not had felt that for a while – since Don Carlos here or Semele at the Royal Opera House.  There was a silence, people weren’t coughing or fidgeting or whispering (as they had during last night’s Traviata).

Laurence Cummings and Albery had made their own edition.  I don’t know enough about the piece to be able to know how far it was changed and amended.  Certainly the serving maid had been cut and the duet with the Valetto was with between him and Ottavia.  Not sure what I think about that – in an opera about the complexities sex, power and love there’s something to be said for a duet showing the uncomplicated side.  Cupid had a larger role than I remembered but that may be my memory playing tricks (I haven’t seen the piece since 2008).  The orchestra – all strings and harpsichords – played very persuasively and elegantly for Cummings.

Albery’s production was, as you would expect, strong and thoughtful, with great acting.  It’s set in what looks like a a morgue or a canteen and in modern dress.  There’s a threatening, almost mafioso atmosphere and a young, sexy, good looking cast able to act an convey the emotions outstandingly.  I won’t forget the varied, ambivalent emotions of the final duet, the mixture of sex, fear, lust and love was portayed stunningly.  Albery portrayed a violent, fearful state, absolutely correctly.  The fact that Drusilla, Ottone and Ottavia ended up dead seemed appropriate for a state where Nero was on the rampage.  He caught the distinction between the hard-bitten cynicism of the servants and the idealism and angst of the aristocracy and told the story clearly.  The tension ratcheted up during the evening and I couldn’t say for sure that Monteverdi would have had any problems with it.

The cast was as good at acting as singing.  Sandra Piques Eddy makes a very beautiful, commanding, certain Poppea while retaining a certain naivete  that seemed to me absolutely right. She clearly had James Laing’s Nero in thrall and he managed that mixture of sexual dependence with the psychotic power of the man.  Both sang marvellously and created an atmosphere of beauty and stillness with and underlying tension in their duet at the end.  James Creswell was a dignified academic of a Seneca and his three students sang their number really well.  Catherine Hopper was a rather dowdy, desperate Ottavia, which I liked and sang her farewell to Rome with a real sadness and desperation.

Christopher Ainslie gave a really fine performance as Ottone.  He sang it marvellously and acted it even better, getting the conflict between love and hate really well – you sympathised with the mess he’d got himself into.  He and Katherine Manley as Drusilla did their scenes together beautifully – she catching the innocence, love and strength of the character.  Their duet was rivetting as they explored the different emotions.

Fiona Kimm gave an understated but hugely effective performance as Arnalta – what a gem that last recitative of hers is.  And I liked it that she wasn’t a tenor in drag – it chimed with Albery’s dark view of the piece and didn’t distract you with the associations.  Of the support, I was particularly impressed by Emilie Renard as a bright, really well acted Cupid – brightly sung as well and Clara Hendrick’s doubling of Fortuna and the Valetto.

Some critics have been a bit sniffy about the production and the evening.  Whatever imperfections there might have been – and perhaps the odd more opulent voice and a little more money for a slightly less grungy set might have been welcome – the sheer power of the evening, the way in which it demonstrated what a great masterpiece this is, held this audience absolutely spellbound.  It’s intelligence, clarity and honesty are all part of what make this company special and we left on a high after a really fine evening.  Catch it.



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