If you turned on BBC Radio 3 for more than 20 mins over the weekend, you might have noticed that we are joyously celebrating the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi, composer of our earliest extant opera, Orfeo. L’incoronazione di Poppea was Monteverdi’s fourth and final opera, and the journey from Orfeo to Poppea shows just how far Monteverdi took the genre, creatively, in his own lifetime: from ancient myth to history, from ethereal demigods and nymphs to passionate, petulant and very real mortals. Although Poppea begins with divine discord between Fortune, Virtue and Love, three goddesses squabbling over who rules the world, we soon land squarely on the human plane, where Love predicts fate will change in a day – at a snap of her fingers. Driven by passion, Nero and Poppea will stop at nothing to be together, and after banishing, betraying and, indeed, literally destroying all those who stand in their way, they are united in a final love duet of ecstatic eroticism: but we know that, after the action of the opera has ended, and within a few months of this marriage, Nero will have kicked the pregnant Poppea to death, his insanity becoming ever more obvious. Such unrestrained selfishness, Monteverdi tells us, will not go unpunished.
Hampstead Garden Opera’s careful and musically sensitive account, with a promising young cast, offers plenty to enjoy. Musica Poetica, directed by Oliver John Ruthven, assisted by Ryaan Ahmed, make a gloriously accurate sound, playing from a minstrels’ gallery above the stage. HGO’s skill at picking, and showcasing, future musical talent is to the fore, with a selection of young singers blessed with truly exciting voices. However, their relative theatrical inexperience, unaided by well-meaning but lacklustre, sometimes unsubtle direction from Stephen Iorio, means this Poppea often lacks the dramatic punch I’ve found in other productions. The cast wander around the large stage in 1950s costumes, incessant movement sapping dramatic tension, while cream screens at the back of the stage are raised and lowered with what should be subtle, but is actually distracting, slowness. Italian accents waver; consonants go smudgy; eye contact is held unnaturally long; gestures feel synthetic; and the challenge of Monteverdi’s knotty human tapestry tests acting unmercifully. Certain key scenes are infallible, thanks to Monteverdi: Seneca’s wonderful suicide scene, with a chorus of friends beseeching him to cling to the joys of life as he proudly renounces the world of Nero’s power; the nurse Arnalta lulling Poppea to sleep in a sun-drenched garden; that rapturous, climactic final duet. However, despite some good ideas, Iorio often misses the tone of the piece, and the main casualty is the humour, which should be blackly ugly in feel, but too often descends into the merely jolly, or slapstick. Life under Nero was too scary to be quite this simple; and these characters are not ciphers.
Slightly uneven casting means the real stars are to be found in the smaller roles. We have a truly exceptional Arnalta from Stephanie Wake-Edwards, on turbo disapproving-Nonna mode, with a lush contralto and bags of attitude. We are further treated to a superb Lucano (as well as Liberto and Littore) from William Branson, whose voice and acting alike are utterly compelling: his “Mori felice” was hugely affecting.
An appealing Drusilla, sung with elegant freshness by Jenni Harper, nevertheless falls victim to the smug simper, not quite attaining the nobility and integrity of this deeply tragic character. A thrillingly well sung Ottavia from Eira Sjaastad-Huse, with extraordinary stage presence and a burnished, penetratingly full soprano, promises well but is foiled by direction which simplifies and aggrandises Ottavia’s emotions, rather than allowing us to be moved by them. Collin Shay’s supple, rich countertenor brings Ottone, Poppea’s spurned lover, to life, but Iorio doesn’t offer him much space to explore, in acting terms, this rather interesting, pivotal character.
Clara Fournillier’s wonderfully sung, but slightly earnest Poppea can’t quite incorporate the playful, scheming egotism of this most ambitious of courtesans which gives Monteverdi’s plot much of its impetus. I’m all for innocent darlings, but Poppea was not one of them. Leslie Davis’ rather stolid Nerone doesn’t feel chimerical, though grows intriguingly and calmly psychotic in the final scene: Davis finds depth and energy in her powerful soprano, and projects plenty of convincing sensual charge with nicely observed male mannerisms. Benjamin Schilperoort’s Seneca falls slightly too much into the boring physics teacher, not enough into the transcendental master of human emotion who has the courage to defy Nero, even at the cost of his own death. Schilperoort’s bass generally shows immense promise, with generous power and control, but a little current thinness at the lowest end of his range frustratingly meant he could not quite get to the bottom of Seneca’s most profound pronouncements; this is undoubtedly only a short-term problem for a very exciting bass voice.
Charlotte Levesley’s Amore is wonderfully sprightly, but her vocal projection could not always quite match her striking stage presence, while some foolish directoral ideas (when did you last actually see someone rub their thighs while thrusting their hips?) detracted from her performance overall. There’s a fine line between arrogant carelessness and irreverent pantomime, and Iorio too often allows panto tricks to win out. Hence, we had woeful overacting from Valetto (Helen May), and a rather sickly sweet Damigella from Angelica Conner, who did however make a commanding Virtu with a pleasingly clean, confident and beautifully accurate soprano. Despite the ostensible contest between love, virtue and fortune, in this production it is Monteverdi’s music which is the ultimate victor.