Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Coronation of Poppea

Opera North - Coronation of Poppea - James Laing as Nerone and Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
James Laing as Nerone and Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Monteverdi Coronation of Poppea; Laing, Piques Eddy, Hopper, Ainslie, Opera North, dir. Albery, cond. Cummings; Grand Theatre Leets
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 30 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Modern dress version of Monteverdi's opera given with verve, excitement and drama

Opera North's new production of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) opened at the Grand Theatre, Leeds on 4 October 2014 and we caught the last performance in Leeds on 30 October (the production tours to Newcastle, Salford and Nottingham). Directed by Tim Albery and designed by Hannah Clark with lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, the theatrically vivid modern dress production was sung in Tim Albery's English translation with Laurence Cummings directing a small intrumental ensemble from the harpsichord. James Laing was Nerone, Catherine Hopper was Ottavia, Sandra Piques Eddy was Poppea and Christopher Ainslie was Ottone, with Ciara Hendricks, Claire Pascoe, Emilie Renard, Katherine Manley, James Creswell, Fiona Kimm, Daniel Norman, Nicholas Sharratt, Owen Willetts, Warren Gillespie and Dominic Barberi.

This was the third production of The Coronation of Poppea that we have seen in the last few years and each was different (the Ryedale Festival production at the Grimeborn Festival, English Touring Opera and now Opera North), and each was remarkable,.


Opera North - Coronation of Poppea - Emilie Renard as Amore, Christopher Ainslie as Ottone and Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea  ©Tristram Kenton
Emilie Renard as Amore, Christopher Ainslie as Ottone
and Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea  ©Tristram Kenton
Albery and Clark set the opera in a large tiled space, where the ceiling should have been was a void, with the cornice forming a balcony and above a vague outline of a mansion. It  was a space that doubled as many, suggestive of the kitchen of Nerone's Roman palazzo. This was a stylish modern dress production and Nerone (James Laing) a mafioso-like thug, his only entourage a pair of heavies, Liberto (Daniel Norman) and Lucano (Nicholas Sharrate) - the roles being combined with the two soldiers. Costumes were very stylish indeed, perhaps rather Mad Men inspired.

The instrumentalists were placed on-stage in two groups, each with its own harpsichord (Ian Bone and Claire Osborne violines, Paula Chateauneuf and Eligio Quinteiro theorbos, Erin Headley gamba and lirone, Frances Kelly harp, Bernard Robertson and Lawrence Cummings harpsichords). There was no interaction, the musicians were ignored by the cast but formed a constant backdrop to the action.

Inevitably the work was cut and with two differening manuscripts to choose from Tim Albery and Lawrence Cumming had made their own edition.  Nutrice went entirely, as did almost all of the comic business - this was a very serious production. We did get the gods, Fortune, Virtue and Love and they formed a very significant dramatic part of the action, watching it rather a lot.

Opera North - Coronation of Poppea - Catherine Hopper as Ottavia and Christopher Ainslie as Ottone.  ©Tristram Kenton
Catherine Hopper as Ottavia and Christopher Ainslie as Ottone.
©Tristram Kenton
In an opera which is essentially about sex, casting a man as Nerone remains a desire of many directors. Thankfully using a tenor is now rare, but the role lies high in the counter-tenor range. James Laing went above the stave more than once, and large chunks sit high in the voice. He sang with a soft grained elegant tone which became rather slim at the very top, but he retained an enormous amount of control. And at the end of a long role, he still sounded fresh in the concluding duet.

Of course, having a man and woman as Nerone and Poppea does not necessarily mean a thrilling sexual interaction, but here it worked. Basically the combination of Laing and Piques Eddy was sex on legs. What was wonderful was that neither felt the need to distort the vocal line, their performance was sung through the music.

Laing was an intense Nerone, dramatically edgy and vocally poised. A neurotic obsessive whom, it became clear, had a vein of disturbed violence. Albery altered the balance of the plot (as did James Conway in his production for English Touring Opera) by having Ottone, Drusilla and Ottavia murdered. In fact their bodies piled up on stage, colouring the final scenes. Sandra Piques Eddy's Poppea became almost catatonic in response and the final duet had a neurotic intensity to the performance which was thrilling for us but did not bode well for the future of the relationship.

Opera North - Coronation of Poppea - James Laing as Nerone and Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
James Laing as Nerone and Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Piques Eddy made a sexy, mezzo-soprano Poppea; slightly more  Carmen-like siren than flirty minx. It was a nicely balanced and intent performance and her singing was sexy, but beautifully well modulated too. And, as I have said, she and Laing developed a smouldering intensity that really matched the music.

Into this relationship, Christopher Ainslie's Ottone stood no chance. Another rather neurotic young man, Ainslie's Ottone was intense but not as wimpish as some other performers, there was more of a balance to Ainslie's account of the role. He sang finely, and engendered our sympathy, we really rooted for him and his dilemma with Drusilla (Katherine Manley). Manley made a lively and stylish Drusilla, bubbling over with her love for Ottone. Whereas in James Conway's ETO production Drusilla seemed the only good, normal person, here she was as intense as the rest.

Catherine Hopper's Ottavia was equally neurotic, starting off the day with a bloody mary, and going down-hill from there. She was neither bitch goddes nor noble (in the Janet Baker mould), but a deft mixture of both. Though she gave a finely intense performance of her final aria, the performance was rather undercut by being sung in the presence of the bodies Ottone and Drusilla, altering the balance of the scene.

James Creswell had all the notes and the demeanour, making a very fine Seneca indeed, characterful and strongly sung. Fiona Kimm was a highly personable Arnalta, making the role more serious but still with a touching regard for her mistress. Her final aria, a comic masterpiece of delivery from Kimm, was undercut by her having to clean up the blood from Ottavia's body.

Opera North - Coronation of Poppea - Nicholas Sharratt as Lucano, Fiona Kimm as Arnalta, James Laing as Nerone, Katherine Manley as Drusilla and Daniel Norman as Liberto  ©Tristram Kenton
Nicholas Sharratt as Lucano, Fiona Kimm as Arnalta,
James Laing as Nerone,  Katherine Manley as Drusilla
and Daniel Norman as Liberto ©Tristram Kenton
Ciara Hendricks doubled as Fortuna and Valetto, the one all elegance on tottering heels the other convincingly boyish and in love with Ottavia. Daniel Norman and Nicholas Sharratt made a fine double act as the two heavies. Claire Pascoe was a very sober Virtu and Emilie Renard was Amore, making a remarkably convincing teenage boy.

Musically the performance was very stylish and vividly theatrical, I have rarely heard Monteverdi's vocal lines suhg with such a combination of drama and musicality. Perhaps not the most perfectly sung, but the amount of Monteverdi's complex detail present was simply remairkable and all projected with verve and dramatic energy. Diction was excellent, Tim Albery's English translation came over with a remarkable degree of comprehension and as a translation the English flowed very nicely with the music.

The musicians contributed immensely to the overall effect, giving us some stylish playing and sympathetic accompaniment, all presided over by Laurence Cummings in fine style.

Overall this was a triumph and I do hope that Opera North may venture into this repertoire again, in such enlivening fashion. There is still time to catch the production in Newcastle, Nottingham and at the Lowry in Salford.

No comments:

Post a comment

Popular Posts this month