AAM’s Enjoyable Poppea Lacks Sense of Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Monteverdi, L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1643): Soloists, Academy of Ancient Music/Robert Howarth (director/harpsichord). Barbican Hall, London, 4.10.2014 (CC)

Poppea: Lynne Dawson
Nerone: Sarah Connolly
Drusilla/La Virtù: Sophie Junker
Amore/Damigella: Daniela Lehner
Ottavia: Marina de Liso
Seneca: Matthew Rose
Ottone: Iestyn Davies
Arnalta:  Andrew Tortise
Nutrice: Vicki St Pierre
Lucano/2nd Soldier: lmar Gilbertsson
Valletto/1st Soldier /Highest Famigliare: Gwilym Bowen
Liberto/Middle Famigliare:    Richard Latham
Fortuna: Charmian Bedford
Littore/Bass Famigliare:Phillip Tebb


Staging: Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson

Staged by Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson with a flare for the minimal (as opposed to minimal flare), this Poppea was, in the final analysis, rather frustrating. We missed out on Anna Caterina Antonacci, the originally billed Poppea; her substitute, Lynne Dawson, was something of a disappointment. Director Richard Egarr was similarly indisposed, and was replaced by Robert Howarth, an altogether happier substitution. The performance was, touchingly, dedicated to Christopher Hogwood, recently deceased (September 24) and the founder of the Academy of Ancient Music.

The staging itself was a sequence of chairs set on steps set in a pyramid shape, perhaps to imply a hierarchy, or even a stuffy rigidity of approach?. The characters’ garb was generally modern day, with Seneca done up like a begowned schoolteacher of the old days. The staging was brought to life by the lighting, which was superbly atmospheric – and, of course, by the protagonists themselves. The small instrumental group (including two theorbos and no fewer than three harpsichord continuos – overkill, surely?) was situated onstage in full view. The staging made good use of the auditorium space. But it was the musical elements of the performance itself, particularly instrumentally, that breathed life into Monteverdi’s masterpiece.

The small group of the AAM was superb. Vocally things were less so, perhaps. The well-known and reliable bass Matthew Rose took the part of Seneca and gave much joy, although even he, uncharacteristically, took time to settle down fully. Counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, not for the first time, impressed. His account of the part of Ottone was superb from the off, strong of voice and completely inside the role. Davies impressed in ENO’s Rodelinda (Handel) back in February this year, and he was just as excellent here, both vocally and in terms of stage presence and acting.

Sarah Connelly has never failed to deliver in this reviewer’s experience, and she was on powerful, emotional form as Nerone, her voice perfectly focused, her bodily stance that of powerful dignity. Her interactions with other characters were always from the heart. The miscasting surely came, though, in the form of Lynne Dawson. Her voice, with the best will in the World, is past its prime, and in the first part of the performance was mostly disagreeable to listen to, timbrally (and sometimes in terms of pitch also). By the time the interval came (following Act 2 Scene 5), I feared for the final duet of Poppea and Nerone. Things did improve, happily, and the famous final section (shared of course with Connelly) was a thing of beauty, if rather hard won.

There was much to enjoy in many of the remaining roles, particularly perhaps Marina de Liso’s Ottavia, Andrew Tortise’s hilarious bearded Arnalta (the aged, and here very hairy, nurse of Poppea) and Elmar Gilbertsson’s strong Lucano. But rarely, really, was there a sense of a performance as the result of a group of singers working as an ensemble towards a shared goal.

This is the second in the AAM’s three-year cycle of Monteverdi’s operas. If it was not the all-out triumph the initial, superstar billing might have implied, it was nevertheless a highly enjoyable traversal through Monteverdi’s magnificent score that did, despite some obstacles, indeed manage to project the stature and importance of L’incoronazione di Poppea.

Colin Clarke

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