United Kingdom Monteverdi: The Coronation of Poppea, Opera North, Laurence Cummings (director/keyboard), Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds, 4.10.14 (JL)
Poppea: Sandra Piques Eddy
Nerone: James Laing
Ottavia: Catherine Hopper
Seneca: James Creswell
Ottone : Christopher Ainslie
Drusilla: Katherine Manley
Arnalta: Fiona Kimm
Fortuna: Ciara Hendrick
Valletto: Ciara Hendrick
Virtù: Claire Pascoe
Amore: Emilie Renard
Liberto : Daniel Norman
Lucano: Nicholas Sharratt
Famigliari: Owen Willetts
Famigliari: Warren Gillespie
Famigliari: Dominic Barberi
Musical Director: Laurence Cummings
Director: Tim Albery
Set and Costume Designer: Hannah Clark
Lighting Designer: Malcolm Rippeth
Anyone who had attended Opera North’s La Traviata the night before would have had 24 hours to readjust backwards 200 years to a very different operatic world. Both operas were premiered in Venice but in 1654 the genre, which had been invented in Monteverdi’s lifetime as a noble entertainment for ruling classes, had only recently become available to a paying audiences in public theatres. What they wanted was what they got: musical theatre that focused on drama and singing packed with excitement, emotion, sex and violence.
What we do not get, as in Traviata, is set piece arias with oompah accompaniment, choruses and soaring, romantic orchestration provided by a large number of players. What we do get are C17th operatic conventions that pose real problems for C20th production. The main one is that of male leads being sung by a castrato, a larger than average male singing at soprano pitch. There are three solutions for modern times: the part can sung by a woman (the most common), a man singing an octave lower, or a male counter tenor. As far as we know, none would match the power of a castrato. Opera North casts two distinguished counter tenors in the castrato roles of Nero and Ottone.
Another problem is the orchestra which would have born no resemblance to Verdi’s for Traviata. We cannot be absolutely sure what instruments were used. This production has eight players split in two groups placed on either side of the stage: one consisting of three bowed strings with harpsichord, and the other, three large plucked instruments (related to the lute) also with harpsichord. The sound they produced, under the direction of Laurence Cummings from the keyboard, might, to many, have sounded seriously under powered for the Leeds Grand Theatre but I am sure most would get used to what we would now regard as chamber forces.
Director Tim Albery has a long and distinguished international track record. The set design of Hannah Clark has his stamp on it: a stark, tiled simplicity that would please any opera management with a tight budget. This is another departure from Venetian practice at the time where what was demanded were lavish “scenes and machines”.
The curtain rises to reveal the end of a modern dinner party scene: Men are suited, women have expensive handbags and armed bouncers are in evidence. The whole scenario manages to convey a setting where selfish needs are going to triumph over morality. Giovanni Busenello was a skilful librettist who quickly introduces the main characters and we find out what those needs are, often conflicting and wavering but usually involving doing someone else down. Amore (aka Cupid), sung by Emilie Renard who has a natural talent for stage timing, tells us that love will win the day come what may, an accurate prediction with ghastly consequences.
A surprise was the text being sung in English. This is not normally Opera North practice. Although some of the words are lost there is the advantage that one visually focuses on the drama and there is plenty of that.
The duets between Nero and his mistress Poppea are often sexually charged. A considerable strength of the show is Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea because she makes it clear to us why the Emporer has lost his head over her. She really looks the part, flirts with seductive conviction and knows how and when to flash a thigh. She can sing too. So can James Laing as Nero who copes heroically with a high castrato part, hitting top notes with surprising ease. He may not be most people’s idea of a Roman Emperor but he is particularly good at the mood swings and excels at petulance.
After their first duet the production has not quite taken off and feels somewhat forced and stilted. This may have been first night jitters. Things radically warm up throughout, the dramatic temperature rising on the entrance of scorned Empress Ottavia played by Catherine Hopper. Spitting vengeance against her husband at one moment, the next suffering remorse, she is served a very red, Bloody Mary cocktail by her nurse who then wipes the knife with which a slice of lemon has been cut. These are going to be recurring symbols.
James Creswell, a commanding baritone as philosopher Seneca, arrives stereotypically dressed as an academic in crumpled brown cords and leather elbow-patched jacket. His later encounter with Nero, which ends in a blazing row, provides examples of some of the libretto’s black humour. When the philosopher/adviser suggests to Nero that bumping off his wife in order to get off with his mistress might be ethically questionable, Nero replies, “I don’t care what’s wrong, it’s what I’ve decided”.
Having blotted his copy book Seneca, later in his own garden, receives a message from Nero that he must kill himself . The stage is strewn with blood-red petals (oh dear, how many times have I seen operatic stages strewn with blood-red petals!). This is no doubt a reference to the fact that Seneca is to do the deed by bleeding to death in his bath.
Christopher Ainslie as Ottone is a fine counter tenor who conveys despair as his affections are tossed between Drusilla (Katherine Manley) and Poppea, but it is Ottavia who persuades him to murder Nero’s mistress. The plot misfires, Drusilla takes the blame and is sentenced to death.
What then happens in the libretto is that Nero, in a fit of mercy, relents and banishes her together with Ottone and the Empress Ottavia whom he announces he has divorced. The only fatal casualty in the opera is Seneca’s off-stage suicide.
This is not good enough for Tim Albery who has the bodies of Ottone and Drusilla wheeled on stage lying on a mortuary trolley having been executed. Then Nero personally stabs his wife to death, goes to the backstage fridge, takes out a large jug of bloody Mary and pours it over her head. The bodies are then wheeled out on hospital trolleys. Tim Albery clearly has a thing about blood and hospital trolleys. They were much in evidence in his much-toured production of Verdi’s Macbeth.
A possible reason for this radical departure from text is that a gesture of mercy from Nero is unconvincingly out of character. Whatever, it makes the final love duet that follows, one of the most beautiful in the repertoire, a very uncomfortable affair. Laing and Piques Eddy sing this with exquisite restraint apart from the agitated middle section which has them doing a copulatory wrestle on a table.
This juxtaposition of bloody murder and glorious love duet was too much for some. I heard a women on the way out of the theatre complain it was “obscene”.
Well there you go. The triumph of love! Cupid wins the day.
The production continues at Leeds to October 30, then tours to Newcastle, Nottingham and Salford.