Thursday 10 October 2013

English Touring Opera: Coronation of Poppea

Coronation of Poppea, photograph Richard Hubert Smith
Coronation of Poppea, photograph Richard Hubert Smith
James Conway's production of Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea was seen first November 2012 performed by students at the Royal College of Music (see my original review). Shared with English Touring Opera, the production has returned as part of ETO's Venetian Baroque season, with a new cast and revived by Oliver Platt. Conway's version of the opera is heavily cut and concentrates on the drama of principal characters, at the expense of the more comic business with the servants. In the hands of ETO's cast, Helen Sherman, Paula Sides, Piotr Lempa, Hannah Pedley, Michal Czerniawski, Stuart Haycock, Jake Arditti, Nicholas Merryweather, Russel Harcourt, Hanna Sandison, Jonn-Colyn Gyeantey ,the opera became something intense, dramatic and highly erotic. Michael Rosewell conducted with the Old Street Band in the pit.

Conway and designer Samal Blak have set the piece in Soviet Russia. Blak's two storey, rather industrial looking set allows the lower level to function as Poppea's bedroom (where most of the action takes place) and the upper level as the royal palace. Conway's interest in the opera is the use of power, and the Soviet framework gives a realistic backdrop for the autocratic rule of Nerone with its quick disappearances of people. Conway makes it clear that 'exile' is simply another word for execution. At the end there is no coronation scene and as Nerone (Helen Sherman) and Poppea (Sides) sing of their love, we see the ghost of all those who have disappeared during the opera.

Jake Arditti, Paula Sides, Helen Sherman in Coronation of Poppea, photograph Richard Hubert Smith
Jake Arditti, Paula Sides, Helen Sherman
photograph Richard Hubert Smith
Conway has kept the prologue, where we see three young people, Hannah Sandison, Hannah Pedley and Jake Arditti as eager Communist party youth. Arditti, as Amor, was a presence during the whole opera; wearing shorts and a rather self-satisfied smirk, there was something creepy about Arditti's Amor which didn't bode well. Both Sandison and Pedley reappeared in the opera; Sandison, who played Virtu, doubled as Drusilla and Pedley, who played Fortuna, doubled as Ottavia. Whilst Conway did not make a big thing of it, it was clear that we were to identify these as during the events of the day depicted in the opera, Ottavia has her great fortune trampled upon, and Drusilla finds virtue brings her no reward.

Michal Czerniawski made a sad, intense Ottone. His yearning for Poppea sung with beautiful flexibility and power. A soft grain to his voice meant that we never took him for a man of great action and the scene where he tries to murder the sleeping Poppea (Paula Sides) was very poignant. Though full of good intentions, Ottone is not very successful in either love or power politics and Czerniawski made him a sad outsider, beautifully sung.

Paula Sides was a very poised Poppea, clearly in love with the idea of power and giving Nerone (Helen Sherman) just what he wanted. She spent most of the opera in a blond wig and a baby-doll dress, only changing into something more mature at the very end. There was no trace of the comic talent that we had seen in her Poppea in Agrippina which we had seen the day before, here was intensity and seriousness. The outburst in act one when she realises that Nerone plans to make her queen, was brilliant, but for much of the opera her performance was notable for its sultriness. Sides has a beautifully flexible voice and sang Monteverdi's vocal lines with a nice ease and precision.

Sides was aptly paired with the almost psychopathic Nerone of Helen Sherman. Looking very much the intense, sometimes vicious, young man Sherman brought charisma to the role and certainly emphasised the neurotic, nasty side of Nerone. This young man had gave no thought to executing everyone. Like Sides, Sherman brought great eroticism to their scenes together, the two made a very believably self-absorbed couple and sang Monteverdi's duets gloriously. The two voices nicely balanced and each different but complementary. The crowning glory was the final duet (probably written by Cavalli for a later revival), which had a remarkable power, focus and was unbelievably erotic.

Sides is in the early stages of pregnancy, to which Sherman referred when she had Nerone caress Sides' belly and which added depth to the erotic tone but also brought poignancy as most people know that after the opera ends, Nerone will have both Poppea and their unborn second baby killed.

Poppea's rival is Nerone's first wife Ottavia (Hannah Pedley). Dressed in imperial purple, Pedley looked every inch the empress and displayed a fine passion in Ottavia's great solos. After the great final duet, it is perhaps Ottavia's two solos which are best known and Pedley did them both justice. Bringing nobility and passion to her opening, lamenting her role as despised queen and bitter sadness to her farewell. There are two basic ways of playing Ottavia, as the noble put-upon lady or as a scheming bitch and Pedley went more for the latter, bringing a real fierceness to the role. This was matched by the way that she sang Monteverdi's lines. All the singers were impressive, but I felt that Pedley seemed to have the greatest natural affinity with Monteverdi's flexible recitative, really making the musical line live.

Drusilla is perhaps the only really good person in the opera and she was sung with bright charm by Hannah Sandison, making us really feel for her. Both servant roles are heavily pruned, but Arnalta (John-Colyn Gyeantey) still got her lullaby and her final aria of triumph. Gyeantey was simply superb as the old woman, Arnalta, incredibly believable in his movements and actions. He has quite a high tension voice, and whilst it was not always beautiful to listen to, he brought great character to his solos and was in all a complete delight. By contrast to Gyeantey's babushka, Russell Harcourt was very soignee looking as Nutrice (here Ottavia's companion). Harcourt brought great vocal character to the role but did not really get many chances to show off.

The roles of Lurcano (Stuart Haycock) and Liberto (Nicholas Merryweather) were in fact combinations of a number of smaller roles. Merryweather was finely intent as the messenger telling Seneca to die. Haycock was a lively drinking companion to Sherman's Nerone in a scene which both succeeded in making rather creepy. Piotr Lempa as Seneca was a convincing sage, with a nice otherworldly intensity, though his voice lacked resonance in the crucial lower notes.

The cast sang Anne Ridler's English translation and, though there were surtitles, they were not needed. This was a very communicative performance.

Michael Rosewell conducted an Old Street Band, replete with two theorbos and harp in addition to the harpsichord played by Carlos de Cueto. Accompaniments were neither as austere as some more recent versions, nor as rich as some, but gave strong support to the singers. In the instrumental ritornelli we were treated to some wonderfully crisp and lively playing.

This was an intense evening, concentrated in its power whilst preserving something of the richness and variety of the original  Revival director Oliver Platt and conductor Michael Rosewell drew performances of remarkable depth from the cast and audiences on ETO's UK tour are in for a highly satisfying treat.

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