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After you, Claudio

09/19/2000 -  and 25 (reviewed), 27, 29 September, 6, 10, 12, 16, 19, 21 October 2000
Claudio Monteverdi: The coronation of Poppea
Joanne Lunn (Fortune), Linda Richardson (Virtue), Carolyn Sampson (Love), Michael Chance (Ottone), Alice Coote (Poppea), Peter David Walker (Nerone), Anne-Marie Owens (Arnalta), Sarah Connolly (Ottavia), Kate Flowers (Damigella), Eric Owens (Seneca), Toby Stafford-Allen (Valletto), Susan Gritton (Drusilla), Graeme Danby (Mercury), Mark Le Brocq, Mark Wilde, James Oxley, Mark Beesley
ENO Orchestra
Harry Christophers (conductor), Steven Pimlott (director)

In contrast to almost all of the other works in the ENO’s Italian season, The coronation of Poppea is an Italian opera in every way: a tale of ancient Rome, based on a Roman source, composed by Venetians and performed in Venice on the public stage. One of the first and best, it outlines the conventions of later opera. There are comic guards, a lovers’ parting at dawn, a furious woman scorned, a comforting old nurse or two, a randy pageboy and an ecstatic duet between the lovers when they have killed or exiled everybody who stands in the way of their happiness. (Later operas prefer to say that lovers have overcome all obstacles, of course.) But Monteverdi and his librettist Busenello seem not to be interested in the Roman past or posterity, but in the present, ticket buying, audience. They present a direct, well-formed and rationally plotted drama of passion and revenge in sublime, and profound, music.

In other words, Poppea is inherently popular and close to production-proof. Its specific observations of humanity and human passions, like Shakespeare‘s, make it work for any audience of humans. Recent productions by a brace of Aldens have pushed it to extremes, but they only showed how much depth there is an apparently simple story. In contrast, Stephen Pimlott’s production for the ENO aims purely to tell the story with a little explanatory decor. Nerone and Poppea were beach bunnies; Ottavia, Nerone’s spurned wife, was, perhaps, Joan Crawford or Mae Rose Prizzi; poor Ottone, Poppea’s bereft ex, was, roughly, Elvis; and everybody else vaguely belonged in a film noir, though nothing depended on the detail. The gods in heaven were in-period Venetian theatrical entities. On earth, Mercury dressed just like Seneca, and Love doubled Poppea in a coup de theatre in the garden. There was also a chorus (in the etymological sense) of six shaggy satyrs who dance, carouse and discretely keep an eye on the singers as they climb around the scaffolding.

The set consisted of a circular platform in the middle of the Coliseum‘s fixed-set building site. The orchestra -- essentially the continuo with violins, extra theorbo, guitar and flutes and recorders -- were behind the singers under a platform, interspersed with candles. A tilted mirror above gave the audience a puzzling view of them, hinting at a baroque angle to the proceedings. (Mirrors and candles might turn out to be a recurring theme in this season.) The instruments were perfectly audible, sometimes strange sounding and always vigorous, but they never risked overpowering the singers.

David Walker as Nerone and Alice Coote as Poppea were a pair of A-list party animals, all blond curls and gilded voices. Coote made Poppea scheming and sensuous, while Walker didn’t quite convey the personal power to match the libido. Both, though, sang superbly, particularly together, where Coote‘s slightly richer voice put an interesting spin on the situation. "Pur ti miro" was not a disappointment. Sarah Connolly was a scary, forceful Ottavia, perhaps too restrained in her farewell to Rome, which she sang in a spot as a cabaret number. Anne-Marie Owens was a tender Arnalta, not really vulgar enough, though she got the right laughs in her final comic triumphal aria. Kate Flowers was funny as a merged Nutrice-Damigella, and Toby Stafford-Allen an excellent Valletto (though definitely not prepubertal).

As Ottone, Michael Chance sounded rather ragged, but he is at last finding a stage personality, and was both funny and sad when wearing Drusilla’s dress. Susan Gritton was suitably comic as Drusilla, moving easily to simple nobility at the end. Eric Owens, an established American singer, made a striking house debut as Seneca. He has a fine, mid weight bass baritone with some impressive low notes and a strong stage presence.

H.E. Elsom



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