Monday, 22 October 2007

Coronation of Poppea - ENO

The Coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi
London Coliseum from
18th October 2007 (7 performances)
Director: Chen Shi-Zheng
Conductor: Lawrence Cummings Reviewed by Mark Valencia

In the primitive operatic landscape of early 17th-Century Italy, Monteverdi was able to write his music dramas untroubled by constraints of form or convention. The operatic rulebook was as yet unwritten so his creativity could prosper unconfined. It is therefore no surprise that the freewheeling character of The Coronation of Poppea lends itself so well to the fluid imagination of Chen Shi-Zheng, a visionary director of Chinese origin who recently scored a bull’s-eye with the same composer’s Orfeo, even though his anaemic Cosi Fan Tutte at a recent Aix Festival revealed limitations in more classical repertoire.

The Coronation of Poppea is the second instalment of Shi-Zheng’s Monteverdi triptych for ENO, with The Return of Ulysses due in a year’s time. The astonishing score drips eroticism from every recorder and chitarrone - and this production has its measure. In a glorious scene that out-Puccinis Puccini, Anna Grevelius’s louche Nerone quivers with ecstasy as Lucano (Nicholas Watts) extols Poppea’s beauty, while the opera’s final love duet is breathtakingly lyrical, especially as shared between the distinctively radiant vocal timbres of Grevelius and Kate Royal, a stunning Poppea both vocally and physically.

Rarely in its recent history has ENO boasted luxury casting of the depth we have here. Diana Montague as Venus and the great bass Robert Lloyd as Seneca are complemented by a uniformly strong cast that includes the counter-tenor Tim Mead, appropriately vulnerable as Ottone, and a fabulously witty turn from Lucy Crowe as his doting Drusilla, sweet of voice but mischievous of purpose. Christopher Gillett overcomes a ludicrous costume to lend his high tenor to a well-rounded Arnalta, and even the smallest minor roles are impeccably sung. Directing from the harpsichord, Lawrence Cummings maintains throughout an ideal balance between singers and period instrumentalists - no mean feat in the wide open spaces of the Coliseum.

Visually, Chen Shi-Zheng offers a feast of ritual surrealism and pastel paradoxes. So mesmerising are the dancers of Indonesia’s Orange Blossom Dance Company that they enrich the music even when their choreography appears to contradict it. But oh, the oddities. Nerone’s wife Ottavia (Doreen Curran) spends the entire evening floating about the stage on a giant air bag - the Flying Dutchman as nesting queen bee, perhaps - in bizarre contrast to a pampered Poppea who is, quite straightforwardly, a preening Hollywood starlet. Are we on the seabed for much of the evening or do the (mercifully brief) appearances of a giant-sized mechanical mollusc hold some darker meaning? Why do Seneca’s servants have their rumpy-pumpy in the very bath that houses their late master’s corpse? And however beautiful the human dragonflies in that breathtaking closing duet, you have to ask: why dragonflies? Ah well: we shrug and move on.

Notwithstanding the devilment of such baffling details, Chen Shi-Zheng and his designer, Walt Spangler, have realised Monteverdi’s masterpiece in a humorous and compelling production that consistently honours both the music and the cheerfully immoral tale at its heart. Three hours flew by in an instant; I was captivated throughout.

Photos by Catherine Ashmore and show Top: Katherine Manley (Fortune) / Jane Harrington (Virtue),Middle:Kate Royal (Poppea) / Anna Grevelius (Nerone) Bottom: Orange Blossom Dance Co
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