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Monteverdi – The Coronation of Poppea

English National Opera
26 October 2007

Poppea – Kate Royal
Nerone – Anna Grevelius
Ottavia – Doreen Curran
Ottone – Tim Mead
Drusilla – Lucy Crowe
Seneca – Robert Lloyd

Conductor – Laurence Cummings
Director – Chen Shi-Zheng
Set Designer – Walt Spangler
Costume Designer – Elizabeth Caitlin Ward
Lighting – Mimi Jordan Sherin

Director Chen Shi-Zheng had presented ENO with a memorable production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 2006. The Orpheus legend lends itself readily to a spectacle of calm and ravishing beauty (as will Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria if the “cycle” is continued), but L’incoronazione di Poppea is a very different kettle of fish, much closer to the “shabby little shocker” plots of the verismo period.  The story also happens to be the sequel to that told in Handel’s Agrippina seen in February and which, in David McVicar’s brilliant production, was a deserved hit for ENO.

Mindful perhaps of these two successes, Poppea is presented in a hybrid manner which falls uncomfortably betwixt and between them, and fails to emulate the excellence of either.

There is visual beauty in abundance with bright costumes reflected in the shiny surface of the stage, the superb dancers of the Orange Blossom Company, and an ever changing kaleidoscope of video projection.   These delights are contrasted savagely by the stiff gait of many of the singers on impossibly high-heeled platform shoes, an electric cephalopod which follows Nerone around like a dog, and the pantomime dame treatment of Poppea’s aged nurse, Arnalta.  Chris Cowell’s new translation lacks the crisp deftness of Amanda Holden’s Agrippina with lines like “If you are nervous, try wearing a frock”, provoking outbursts of laughter - surely unintended, at least by Monteverdi. Another absurdity is the clipping on and off of a safety harness for ascents and descents of an easy-looking ladder; Health & Safety... Helmets for somersaults on stage next?

The real casualty of this concoction is the plot.   The guts of the story are that Poppea, young, sexy and single-mindedly ambitious, is prepared to go to any lengths to seduce the completely dissolute Emperor Nero, and to supplant his aging consort, Ottavia.    

But in this production we have an Ottavia who, clad in rather fetching lilac scanties, has clearly not lost any of her looks, but for some unspecified reason is confined to perching on top of an illuminated gourd (illustrated) – a position from which she can exert no regal authority.  

Nerone, despite being dressed in much the same power costume which Christine Rice sported as the outrageous teenage tearaway in Agrippina, seems strangely mellowed with barely a hint of impropriety, let alone flagrant debauchery.   And finally, Poppea remains unattainably aloof, like an “A-list” model more intent on posing for the camera than taking part in real life and being the driving force in the plot.  

There appears to be no sexual chemistry at all between her and Nerone; even when they sing of their wild passion they remain a chaste arms length apart.

I would make it plain that the responsibility for these failures must be placed entirely at the directorial door – the singers obviously behave as instructed.  Kate Royal tries her outmost by injecting a sensuous tone into her voice, Anna Grevelius rips through her coloratura with knife sharp precision, and Doreen Curran acquits herself honourably.

Robert Lloyd is in commanding tone and stature as the dignified elder statesman, Seneca.  Lucy Crowe’s lovely bright voice puts some real life into Drusilla.   William Berger and Joana Seara (Valletto and Damigella) sing amorously and disport themselves pleasurably.  James Gower makes his mark as an authoritative Mercury. 

Laurence Cummings conducts the orchestra a little ponderously; on this evening the trumpets sounded woefully out of tune. 

Anyone who saw the earlier ENO production or the Royal College of Music’s witty production a year ago* will be disappointed by this travesty.

Serena Fenwick

* q.v. our many previous reviews of this, one of the greatest of all operas:-
live at ENO in 2000; Trinity College of Music at St Bartholomew the Great in 2002, Welsh National Opera's (seen also on TV in short, daily half-hour sections, like a TV 'Soap'; a successful experiment) and, on DVD, productions by Audi at Amsterdam and Hampe at Schwetzinger- my favourite.

See also many other reviews of ENO2007 at TheOperaCritic http://www.theoperacritic.com/reviewsa.php?schedid=enopoppea1007 [Editor]