Thursday 29 November 2012

I'Incoronazione di Poppea at the RCM

Louise Alder (Poppea), Rannveig Karadottis (Nerone) - L'Incoronazione di Poppea - 2012 - Royal College of Music
Louise Alder (Poppea) and Rannveig Karadottir (Nerone)
L'Incoronazione di Poppea at RCM
Monteverdi's operas are the earliest to have a regular place in the repertoire. Whilst his first opera Orfeo was written for the Mantuan Court, his final one L'Incoronazione di Poppea was written for the public theatre in Venice. The performances there were a commercial enterprise and the operas structured in a way which appealed to the Venetian public. This involved a mixture of comic and serious in the same work, something which was distinctive to Venetian opera. Such works were not, however, haphazard with the lower class characters being the comic ones and the upper class ones being the serious. You only have to compare Cavalli's Serse (written for Venice) and Handel's Serse (written for London) to see how time and distance had changed the way opera was structured. Handel's version drops all but one servant, and all the comic flirting and liaisons disappear. But the Venetian idea of a mixture of comic and serious continued into the 18th century when Goldoni wrote the librettos for a series of operas by Galuppi. These, with their serious masters and comic servants, were an important influence on Mozart.

Though Busenello's libretto for Monteveredi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea is quite tightly constructed, it still results in a rather diverse plot, a sprawling work with a substantial running time. It is also a style of opera which is entirely absent from our opera houses (early 19th century Italian operas such as Rossini's The Thieving Magpie use the semi-seria genre but few more recent ones do). So directors tend to go at it with a pair of shears, and no production is ever quite the same as the previous. The new production at the Royal College of Music directed by James Conway, designed by Samai Blak, which we saw on 28 November, uses a heavily cut version with emphasises the drama of Monteverdi's opera at the expense of other elements.

Most of the sub-plots have disappeared, all the comic business and flirting between servants beloved of the Venetians. The production is a cooperation with English Touring Opera who will performing it in Autumn 2013, so the result tightly constructed work is highly suitable for touring. Conway's main interest is in power, he views the opera as being about power rather than just love. In fact, he seems to take a rather cynical view of the love of Poppea and Nerone, suggesting that the Poppea that Nerone loves is an entirely constructed being.

To facilitate making sense of the power-plays and the way Nerone has a tendency to make people disappear, Conway and his designer Samal Blak, set the piece during the Stalinist era. Luckily Nerone was not depicted as Stalin himself, the piece was just given the atmosphere and ethos of that era. Blak's two storey set, filled with rust coloured movable panels, was flexible and useful. Poppea's bed was set in the centre of the lower level and stayed there for the whole of the opera, there were no grand court scenes and no actual wedding ceremony. Ottavia and Seneca appeared on the upper level, as did the gods.

We saw the second performance on 27 November, which had the alternative cast; the roles of Poppea, Nerone, Drusilla, Arnalta, Ottono and Lucano being double cast.

Michael Rosewell conducted the Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra. They used Clifford Bartlett's edition of the piece, and accompanied it with just 10 hard-working musicians which perfectly suited the size of the theatre and the stripped down feel of the production. Working in a commercial theatre, Monteverdi's original band was probably not large.

The three gods (Filipa Van Eck, Soraya Mafi and Joanna Songi) seemed to be all school girls, reading lines. Each had a red banner which hung dramatically from the balcony of the upper level of the set. All three impressed with their command of the style, particularly  Van Eck). Songi as Amore cropped up at salient points during the opera and would even spy on Nerone and Poppea.

Tai Oney's Ottone was a sad outsider, perpetually looking in and spending a lot of act 1 spying on Nerone and Poppea. He was a sad sap (despite the military uniform), his intrigue and attempted murder of Poppea were over in a flash. This was mitigated by Oney's performance, you felt sorry for Ottone and warmed to Oney's lovely warm voice (in style it reminded me a little of Derek Lee Ragin) and his singing was very stylish.

We first saw Poppea (Louise Alder) lying on her bed with Nerone (Rannveig Karadottir), and that is where she remained for the whole opera. She wore a blond wig, shortie little-girl dress, ankle socks and too much make-up; we even saw her getting 'vitamin' injections from Nerone's doctor (Morgan Pearse). The Poppea that Nerone loved/lusted after was a construction; for Conway, Poppea isn't interested in love but in power and Nerone's love is the way towards that. Alder sang Poppea with lovely bright tones and great appeal managing to convey Poppea's appeal without descending into vamp. Her pleading cries of 'tornerai' in act 1 being just what Nerone wanted to hear. Alders roles already include Susanna, Nanetta, the other Poppea (in Handel's Agrippina) and Musetta. Her Poppea was a fine addition to this roster. Clearly the Royal College are developing singers comfortable in both historically informed and non-historically informed performance.

She and Karadottir developed a very real, strong relationship; its intensity conveying that nothing good could come of this. Conway and Blak's rather confined claustrophobic setting rather ensured this, there was never any feeling that Poppea was present in Nerone's wider court (the wedding scene was omitted). The way their voices intertwined in the duets was magical and their relations musically and dramatically convincing.

It helped that Karadottir's Nerone was brilliantly androgynous. She is not a tall woman, but successfully conveyed a youthful tyrant. Not necessarily vicious but with a convincingly manic undertow which made you understand why everyone jumped to attention. She has an attractive edge to her voice and will, I think have a repertoire well beyond baroque.

Nerone's wife Ottavia (Fiona Mackenzie) is sometimes portrayed as a tragic figure and sometimes as a scheming harpy. Mackenzie was somewhere in between, though her performance was rather muted until her final farewell scene; it was only here that she made a real impression. But impress she did. Her operatic experience has included Handel, Offenbach and G&S (!); her Ottavia had a real tragic quality and depth to it, without sacrificing any period style.

Drusilla (Anna Anandarajah) was perhaps the only nice, disinterested person in the entire plot. In this version she had become housekeeper rather than an aristocratic lady (one of the casualties of Conway's stripped down plot was that we lost the by-play of class issues). Anandarajah gave a warm, finely sung performance capturing our hearts immediately. Of the singers in the cast, she was the one whose musical performance seemed to go beyond just singing stylishly to capturing something of the essence of Monteverdi's art.

Simon Gilkes (Arnalta) - L'Incoronazione di Poppea - 2012 - Royal College of Music
Simon Gilkes (Arnalta)
Poppea's nurse Arnalta, played by tenor Simon Gilkes, was very much a babushka  Arnalta lost her interactions with other characters apart from Poppea, and Gilkes' performance, whilst funny, emphasised the serious side of the character. Gilkes was wonderfully convincing in the role, more subtle in character than many pantomime dame versions that I have come across. His singing was stylish with a lovely lullaby, but except in intimate moments, sounded a notch louder than the others; something which would work fine in a bigger theatre.

Ottavia's nurse, Nutrice, had her part stripped down to the bone and was played by a woman, Angela Simkin. As ever when this role is sung by a contralto, you were aware that she was managing her voice as it sits very, very low in the voice. I hope that next time, Simkin gets a rather more grateful role.

David Hansford's Seneca was a very charismatic figure, clearly some sort of revolutionary writer. Hansford has an amazing dark bass voice which sounded superb in the role, focused and darkly grained, though his passage-work and ornamentation were smudgy at times. No matter, he conveyed the attraction and charisma of the figure.

Of the remaining smaller roles, Conway had elided some to create single more substantial characters. Morgan Pearse sang Liberto, Littore and 3rd Famigliari, creating a sinister doctor figure who did Nerone's bidding and made sure that people were got rid of smoothly and simply. He was also a closet admirer of Seneca's writings, so that when Seneca died he, Lucano (Nick Pritchard) and Ottone came out from different parts of the set to sing the 'Non morir Seneca' chorus secretly.

Pritchard had to rejoice at Seneca's death with Nerone over the prone body of Poppea; I'm not clear why. But Pritchard nicely made his mark. Vasili Karpiak and Michael Butchard were the two soldiers who had their wonderful scene in act 1 and spent the rest of the opera as Nerone's heavies.

The rear of the set consisted of two large glass windows. Through one of these we saw Seneca's bloody suicide. Then later we saw Ottone's death (clearly banishment was just a euphemism). So that during the final scene, the figures of those killed or disappeared during the opera loomed in the window, a chilling reminder of the toll which this love story demands. During the glorious final duet, Nerone became increasingly entranced by his own image in the mirror. Conway's way of indicating the way that the relationship would go down hill from now on.

The final duet itself was beautifully sung, perfectly poised and perhaps just a little cool. This wasn't quite the glorious triumph of ordinary love which it is in some performances. The quite small scale accompaniment from the orchestra supported this interpretation, so we ended on a perfect but slightly down-beat note.

Not every singer performed everything perfectly stylishly, but all had a fine grasp of the music and we heard plenty of nicely turned ornaments and crisp runs. Yes, there was also some smudgy passagework, but nothing that untoward and you felt all the singers were clearly feeling the piece as real drama through the music.

Conductor Michael Rosewell kept things moving, and this helped keep the drama intense, but musically focussed. Conway and the cast had obviously worked hard and there was hardly a weak link. This was opera as very real drama. The orchestra players were hard working and fitted into the drama quite beautifully. The ritornelli were all nicely turned, and the acres of recitative were as flexible and as flowing as one could want.

Conway's 'slash and burn' version of the score meant that there were many losses, but with a young cast what we gained was a stylish and intensely human drama.

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