Review: AAM - The Coronation Of Poppea @ Barbican
Academy of Ancient Music
L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation Of Poppea)
Barbican Centre, London
Saturday 4th October 2014
Post performance of WNO's staging of Moses In Egypt, I ventured like so many times before to London.
In the wake of the John Tavener day at the Barbican, this semi-staged version of Monteverdi's opera was not to be missed. A blockbuster cast of singers was of great appeal. This work is going on to be nearly 400-years-old (Monteverdi wrote it in his 70s) and like some of his other operas, it still holds up in the current repertoire.
Set in ancient Rome (the first opera to portray real life characters), the synopsis is expectedly complex and intriguing. Poppea and her lover, the emperor Nerone plot for her succession to the throne. Being foiled by Ottavia, who is Nerone's wife, Ottone (who drags up in his attempt to kill Poppea) and even the gods themselves do all in their feeble power to stop this marriage between the pair.
Even the philosopher, Seneca is silenced and proceeds to kill himself, even with cries from his friends to live. Poppea does become empress at the end and an exquisite duet between the lovers ends the show. In this curious early opera, those who are good are crushed and those who are wicked and cunning prevail. Or do they?
In a packed pre-show talk by Anthony Pryer in The Fountain Room, there were not enough chairs to sit an audience keen to know more about the composer and opera of the time. I choose not to stay for the talk because of this. The Barbican's free programmes (which looks more like a brochure) have given great insight into the work and its history. It is quite an experience to hear an opera this old. Monteverdi's music may not be as refined as Mozart or Haydn, but he escapes the trappings of his era and makes for some especially jolly, still and impassioned music making.
Much discussion is made by scholars as to whether Monteverdi wrote the whole opera, or could have joined forces with the younger composers Cavalli and Ferrari. His genius is proven over a life's work in music (I also recommend his Vespers) and I'd like to think he wrote it all. Since no original copy exists from the first version of the opera, two copies from Venice and Naples from the 1650s state very different orchestration. If asking for just continuo, this would simply be a keyboard player on say a harpsichord. The Venice edition is what we heard tonight, with some strings, harpsichords, harp and a duo of theorbos (a large lute with an extend neck popular in the 17th and 18th centuries).
This immaculate troupe of singers and instrumentalists I simply can't praise enough (a chipper Robert Howarth replacing Richard Egarr as director on harpsichord and organ). As our empress to be, Lynne Dawson is cheeky, determined and not in any way evil. The evergreen Sarah Connolly (pictured), who I last saw in Elgar's The Dream Of Gerontius at the Barbican, is the trouser role (woman playing a man) of the calculating and lusty Nerone. After her premier of John Tavener's Gnosis at this year's BBC Proms, her versatility as a mezzo-soprano is gloriously evident. A firm presence in anything she is in. Ottavia here is giving a well-handled and methodical appearance by Marina de Liso. We should care for her, but as always in opera there is so much brilliant ambiguity to sift through.
It's easy to see why countertenors we're the opera stars of their day. Prior to the tenors being the heroes of opera, these men would wow audiences with their high singing and bravado (their castration to obtain this is best not discussed). Iestyn Davies (seen in Rodelinda and Bach's St. Luke's Passion) keeps this tradition going in his own remarkable way. As Ottone or any character he plays, he is a sexy figure who can't be shot down, for what should be a range too high for a man to sing.
Matthew Rose as Seneca gave off sympathetic vibes as he ended his life. Andrew Tortise as the maid, Arnalta was our pantomime dame, but also a serious tenor. Playing Valletto, First Solider and Highest Famigliare, Gwilym Bowen with his curly blond hair and quick-fire humour and scared nature, is a singer to look out for in further productions. The gods also stand out, in particular Daniela Lehner as a sprightly Amour, prancing around and mock firing Cupid's arrows.
With a pleasing semi-staging, which kept attention and took little away from the music, both directors Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson handled using the Barbican Hall and auditorium very well. We as an audience may not have wanted the singers that near to us as they walked and darted around the auditorium, yet is was their singing that destroyed any sense of fidgeting discomfort or unease.
A grand coronation indeed.
There are two opportunities to see Monteverdi's L'orfeo next year. January 2015 sees the Royal Opera House collaborate with The Roundhouse for a production. English National Opera will stage a performance in Bristol at the Old Vic in April of next year.
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