An inventive new L’Incoronazione di Poppea


Grange Festival, Hampshire

It would seem the contemporary version of achieving the feeling of absolute authority, power over everyone including sexual favours, and endless confidence, is an endless supply of cocaine. For director Walter Sutcliffe, there doesn’t seem to be a version for women – they still seem to need to achieve their status through the powerful men they manage to snare, usually using their sexual charms.

So, our Nero appears as a cocaine-sniffing out of control, immoral druggie, admittedly still rather dashing, but more bling than imperial.  He is obsessed by the pleasures of Poppea, her breasts and lips get special mention, having lost interest in his respectable wife Ottavia who is the scion of the Augustan dynasty. Poppea is an ambitious woman who admires herself in the (invisible) mirrors a little too much and is obsessed with getting that imperial title.

Anna Bonitatibus and Christopher Lowrey

Then we have the rather wet Ottone who loves Poppea and who seems to accept he is out of the running and settles for the very pleasant Drusilla. Only, he cannot get Poppea out of his heart but when Ottavia orders him to murder Poppea he reluctantly agrees. He dons Drusilla’s clothes to do the dirty deed, but the personification of Love intervenes. Nero finds out and exiles Ottavia, Ottone and Drusilla – so he can get on with his love fest with Poppea.

Sam Furness and Kitty Whately

Oh, and we have the very worthy Seneca who warns Nero of the consequences of his lifestyle. He famously has to commit suicide, on the instructions of Nero and suggested by Poppea.

No, not a very pleasant lot.

It is always dangerous for a director to transpose work and apply contemporary sensibilities to the past, particularly the ancient past. However, this is also a favourite occupation of opera composers.

Monteverdi’s opera, first staged in Venice in 1643, was seemingly as much a commentary of the virtue of the Venetian Republic as the depravations of Rome after the Republic had become an Empire. Therefore, we can forgive the ways the director throws in quotations from Tacitus on the life of Nero (annoying on a rolling  text across the architrave of the scenery (which in itself mirrors The Grange’s faux ancient temple facades).

The use of the three goddesses who sing the prologue then being the protagonists in the opera is a bit tricky in part (one makes more sense than the other) but there are no problems with the playing from the period-instrument ensemble La Nuova Musica, here conducted with great enthusiasm as well as sympathy by David Bates.

Kitty Whately and Sam Furness

We have an excellent Kitty Whately singing Poppea and Fortuna, Anna Bonitatibus’ glorious Ottavia also plays Virtu and a rather feisty Vanessa Waldhart as Drusilla and also Love.  It is this double incarnation that is not so secure.

The men were splendid, particularly Jonathan Lemalu’s velvety deep Seneca and Christopher Lowrey’s troubled and weak Ottone. As the drug inflicted Nero Sam Furness was excellent. I don’t blame him for putting his trousers back on for the curtain call, as in the final scene he and Poppea had been obliged to sport dreadful sort of pyjamas – his like those T-shirts that pretend you have a six-pack physique. Other costumes were much more interesting, particularly those combining modern suits with togas.

We had an energetic elderly nurse from Fiona Kimm who sort of says” when in Rome…” and an equally cynical Arnalta, played by Frances Gregory, as another ambitious would-be.

Tenor Gwilym Bowen was Nero’s drug and drink partner, rather than poet, Lucano. The scene with the two men getting higher and higher was great fun and the singing superb.

I was not completely convinced by Jon Bausor’s set designs. The pillars that seem to have a life of their own, moving in and out, swirling round, one-minute classical columns, another near fluorescence lights, and the bath that doubles as a bed and moves from centre stage to the back of the stage (and then into the bowels of the earth) can also prove a minor irritant.

In all, this is an impressive achievement for the festival opera and deserves travelling into the glorious Hampshire countryside to enjoy.

Until June 22.

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