Saturday 30 August 2014

Coronation of Poppea at Grimeborn Festival

Rosie Aldridge and Elizabeth Holmes in Ryedale Festival Opera's Coronation of Poppea at Grimeborn Festival
Rosie Aldridge and Elizabeth Holmes
Monteverdi The Coronation of Poppea; Ryedale Festival Opera, director Nina Brazier, music director Christopher Glynn; Grimeborn Festival at Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 28 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Small scale, but entrancing and engrossing production of Monteverdi's final opera

Ryedale Festival Opera brought its production of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea to the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre on 29 August 2014. Premiered earlier this year at the Ryedale Festival, the production was sung in a new English translation by John Warrack and directed by Nina Brazier with designs by Sophie Mosberger and lighting by Tom Boucher. Christopher Glynn (artistic director of the Ryedale Festival) was musical director (directing from the organ) with instrumental players from Eboracum Baroque. Soloists included Ben Williamson as Ottone, Elizabeth Holmes as Poppea, Stephanie Marshall as Nero, Maria Ostroukhova as Ottavia, Rosie Aldridge as Arnalta and Rebecca Van den Berg as Drusilla.

The idea of a budget production of Monteverdi's final opera has the potential to make the heart sink, the piece is so long and complex with a huge cast of characters (Ryedale Festival Opera fielded over two dozen different roles), and requires a certain quality to the delivery of the vocal lines. There are few arias, few big moments and it is in the dialogue and drama that the interest lies. All of which needs time (and money) spending on valuable rehearsal time.

Stephanie Marshall and Elizabeth Holmes in Ryedale Festival Opera's Coronation of Poppea at the Grimeborn Festival
Stephanie Marshall and Elizabeth Holmes
It was clear that Ryedale Festival Opera had spent their limited budget in all the right places, I have not seen such an entrancing and engrossing production of The Coronation of Poppea for years. There was virtually no set, just three boxes which were manipulated by the cast in the musical interludes. These were supplemented by three tailor's dummies, dressed with clothes for Nero, Poppea and Ottavia and which kept these three characters as a constant presence throughout the proceedings. Almost as important, the back drop to the production was the musicians themselves. Christopher Glynn (organ), Ian Tindale (harpsichord), Toby Carr (theorbo) and Aileen Henry (baroque harp) formed the continuo group behind the stage whilst the 'orchestra' (Naomi Burrell and Alice Earll violins, Jessica Tickle viola, Alex Rolton cello and Chris Parsons trumpet) were on a the platform above the stage (anyone who knows Studio One at the Arcola Theatre will understand more clearly).

The effect was to put the music at the centre of the performance, this paid off with the delivery of the dialogue by the singers. All embraced John Warrack's translation with clear delight and expressivity. Warrack's writing was straightforward and direct, but kept the humour and had the lower class using a more demotic text. This was production where you could simply follow The Coronation of Poppea like a play, catching every word and with the singers colouring each dramatic nuance. It made for gripping theatre, so gripping that as the first two acts performed without a break (two hours of music), the fact that the seats were bottom-numbing hardly mattered. It wasn't perfect, some of the cast did rather smudge the passagework occasionally and perhaps getting used to the new space caused a hint of tuning problems, but in the context of what went right these were small things.

Stephanie Marshall and Elizabeth Holmes in Ryedale Festival Opera's Coronation of Poppea at the Grimeborn Festival
Stephanie Marshall and Elizabeth Holmes
We got a very full version of the text. Director Nina Brazier had chosen to present as much of the opera as possible, and present it in as straight-forward way as possible. Though costumes were modern (the women's dresses looked loosely 1970's), there was no axe to grind. We concentrated simply on the characters and the drama. And we had the smaller characters like Valletto and Damigella, with the delightful flirty scene between them, as well as Valletto's discussion with Nutrice about the perils of ageing. This performance used the version of the text with the gods and goddesses, not only the Prologue with Fortune, Virtue and Love but the goddesses also made their appearance to crown the coronation scene.

Stephanie Marshall made a remarkable Nerone, combining his waywardness with a certain warmth of character. It was clear that Marshall's Nerone was dictatorial, but Marshall made us warm to him. Particularly as Brazier allowed the clemency to Ottone and Drusilla in act three. Elizabeth Holmes was a lovely Poppea, her voice had a purity and coolness which surprised in the role. But the scenes with Marshall were coruscating, and the two really convinced that these were lovers, ensuring that the central premise of the opera worked. As mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman (who played Nero in English Touring Opera's production of the opera) noted in her interview with me, having two women in erotic contact can still cause an interesting frisson on stage. Whatever the source here, the result with Marshall and Holmes was vividly central to the performance.

Around this we are presented a whole variety of different views of love and relationships. Ottavia (Maria Ostroukhova) has lost Nerone and Ostroukhova made her both moving and dramatic. With a rich mezzo-soprano voice Ostroukhova brought out both the tragic side and the bitch-goddess in this character, a fine performance. Ostroukhova also doubled Fortune and a cupid.

Ottone (Ben Williamson) spends the opera moving from one love (Poppea) to another, Drusilla (Rebecca Van den Berg). Ottone is a central character to the opera, and Williamson gave a strong performance, making Ottone seem rather less of a sad sap than usual and singing with superb musicality. He was partnered by a warm and sexy Drusilla from Rebecca Van den Berg. Drusilla is often portrayed as simply as a good and noble girl, but Van den Berg made her a really sexy woman in love.

Around these principals circulate the lesser characters. Rosie Aldridge was clearly channelling Hyacinth Bucket in her performance of Arnalta, Poppea's nurse. She was warm, engaging and funny, but sang moments like the lullaby finely and I rather missed that she did not get her final solo. Ottavia's nurse, Nutrice, is an even more highly coloured character, played by a tenor Tom Morse, the character is the standard 17th century trope of an older woman, sung by a man. Morse made a funny but touching Nutrice, all the more impressive because with a series of quick changes (of costume and sex) he also sang 1st Soldier and Seneca's 1st Friend.

Caroline Kennedy stayed as a man throughout the opera, doubling Love and Valletto, giving a charming and pert performance as both. It was lovely to hear Valletto's outburst at how awful Seneca is, during the sober scene between Seneca and Ottavia. Valletto's love interest (temporary we suspect) was Charmian Bedford's pert Damigella, Bedford also sang Pallade, and made a final appearance as a poised and lovely Venus during the coronation scene.

James Fisher was an intense and distinguished Seneca, displaying some lovely dark low notes and conveying the deep, inner fierceness of the character. Gwylim Bwen was Lucano, whose singing contest with Nero was turned into something of a tour de force, as the harpsichord was brought forward and Morgan accompanied himself as he sang with Nero. A neat, and brilliantly simple piece of staging. Morgan also doubled 2nd Soldier and Liberto. Timothy Murphy brought dignity to Lictor, Consul and Seneca's 3rd friend, whilst Rosie Stachniewska double Virtue, Seneca's 2nd friend and a cupid.

The continuo group impressed both with the fluidity and flexibility of the accompaniment, and with the variety of tone and timbre that they brought to the opera. The short instrumental ritornelli were delightfully played by the larger instrumental group, with Parson's high trumpet blending well and giving us lively variety of timbre. Some of the shorter dance movements were positively toe-tapping.

This was a long evening, and I think that both the opera (and my bottom) would have benefited from a second interval, so that Monteverdi and Busenello's act structure could have been preserved. But thanks to a series of strongly involving performances from all concerned, we got an evening of vivid drama.
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