Monteverdi Masterpiece with Lulu-like Heroine

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea: Soloists, Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra, Michael Rosewell (conductor). Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, 27.11.2012 (MB)


Poppea – Katherine Crompton
Nerone – Annie Fredriksson
Ottavia – Fiona Mackenzie
Drusilla – Hanna Sandison
Seneca – David Hansford
Arnalta – Matthew Ward
Ottone, First Kinsman – Bradley Travis
Lucano, Second Kinsman – Peter Kirk
Nutrice – Angela Simkin
Liberto, Littore, Third Kinsman – Luke Williams
Fortune – Filipa Van Eck
Virtù – Soraya Mafi
Amore – Joanna Songi
First Soldier – Vasili Karpiak
Second Soldier – Michael Butchard

James Conway (director)
Oliver Platt, Sandra Martinovic (assistant directors)
Samal Blak (designs)
Ace McCarron (lighting)

Picture credit Royal College of Music

James Conway’s new production of what is surely one of the three greatest operas of the seventeenth century, and perhaps the greatest of all, L’incoronazione di Poppea, is a splendid affair – intelligently conceived , tightly directed, and resourcefully designed by Samal Blak. Conway’s words in the programme should be drilled into anyone who opines on staging, whether in print, on the Internet, or in the theatre: ‘The question of what “period” to set it all in is not the beginning or the end of the process, but an historically informed decision somewhere in the middle. Sadly, this is certainly the decision that seems to exercise people most.’ There is no reasoning with those who scream ‘why is not set in x at the time y?’ as soon as anything is depicted that does not conform to their unimaginative, unhistorical and generally quite vulgar sense of hyper-realism. If only we had pictures, or other evidence, of the costumes and backdrops employed in Venice’s Teatro SS Giovanni e Paulo, I am sure they would find themselves in an irresolvable quandary. Should those be replicated, or should we have something recognisably of Rome in AD 65? I doubt very much that any set of designs would be able to accomplish both. Conway’s setting was imaginative and worked in theatrical terms. Apologising ‘to those who anticipated togas or 17th century Venice,’ (and we should note the operative or) he says that he considered ‘Tudor Terror, but too much reading about the revolutionary ego and Stalin’s bruising reign convinced me that this was a place … from which Ottone, Dusilla, Ottavia and Seneca might suddenly disappear, and in which all might live cheek by jowl in a sort of family nightmare, persisting in belief in family (or some related ideal) even as it devours them.’ And so it came to pass, a fine young cast conveying its conviction in the concept.

Yet, as we saw Conway remark, the time and place are not in themselves the most important matter. The sense of relative claustrophobia, of arbitrary imperial caprice, of the intertwining of sex and high – or low – politics was far more important than the admittedly handsome designs, whether of costume or sets. (The latter were crucial in another way, though, permitting a great deal of observation from outside and sudden secret intimacy.) Perhaps the most radical step, however, had nothing to do with where the opera was set at all. It was the depiction of Poppea less as the typical sex kitten than as an almost Lulu-like projection of fantasies ‘far more damaging than she’.

That reversal, or at least re-evaluation, seemed to me to work better after the interval in the second and third acts than in the first, where one felt something lacking in her character. But perhaps the fault lay with me and the time it took to accustom myself to the new understanding. I think it was also, though, a matter of Katherine Crompton working her way into the role of the anti-heroine. The blonde wig and somewhat frumpy costume of the first act did her no favours; indeed, she looked at that point more like Grayson Perry than an aspirant empress. Moreover, her vocal performance took a while to blossom too. Once the first act was over, however, idea and portrayal were captivating – and convincing. Much the same could be said of Annie Fredriksson’s Nerone. Perhaps the most impressive members of an impressive cast were Bradley Travis’s Ottone and Fiona Mackenzie as a beautiful, wronged but also wronging Ottavia – a far more complex character than one would ever guess from hearing the astounding lament, ‘Addio Roma’ out of context – as one often does. Travis offered an Ottone as handsome of voice as of uniformed figure; his conflict was credible, tormenting and, through expressive artistry very much became ours. Hanna Sandison’s Drusilla also offered complexity of character, whilst Matthew Ward’s nurse in drag, Arnalta, offered not only a degree of Shakespearean comic relief but the proper degree of homespun wisdom – or is it nonsense?

From where I was seated I could not see the pit, so am not entirely certain whether the instruments were ‘old’ (which in our Alice in Wonderland world generally seems to mean new, but alleged replicas). The strings, a small band, certainly did not sound modern, but they had more than a hint of the ‘modern, but played in “period” style’ to them more Harnoncourt than the extremist fringe. That is of course as much a matter of performance as of hardware, and Michael Rosewell’s direction tended to steer a not entirely convincing ‘third way’. There was certainly none of Leppard’s – let alone Karajan’s – tonal refulgence; indeed, string sonority was often unpleasantly thin. But nor was there the lightness, after a fashion, of Renaissance, as opposed to later Baroque, instruments. Continuo playing picked up after the interval; the first act alternated a little too often between heavy harpsichords and hesitant theorbo. Recorders were occasionally employed, to good effect. But the singing and production were the thing – and they were in most respects impressive indeed. Those unable to make these RCM performances may be interested to know that the production will be revived for English Touring Opera in autumn 2013.

For what it is worth, that most frustrating of final duets, ‘Pur ti miro,’ – one desperately wants it to be by Monteverdi, since it is so ravishingly beautiful and moving, even though one’s head tells one that it is not – sounded rather different from the rest of the score, as if by a later or younger composer, which it almost certainly is. Someone, or rather several people, had clearly done something right, to engineer that effect, much as one might have wanted to wish it away.

Mark Berry

Performances continue on 28 and 30 November, and 1 December, the second and fourth performances offering partly different casts.