Earlier in the year, English National Opera introduced us to Poppea, Nerone and Ottone in Handel’s early opera Agrippina.
Now the same characters are back in Monteverdi’s earlier work L’incoronazione di Poppea.
These historical personages come down to us from Tacitus, by way of Busenello, and another remove, quite a considerable one, is now added by director Chen Shi-Zheng and his librettist Christopher Cowell.
What Monteverdi’s stunning score and Shi-Zheng’s chic elegance do is cushion us from the savagery of reality. In this refined and pretty representation of historical facts, the grim truth of what happened to these Romans is overlooked Poppea was to be kicked to death by the psychotic Nero, who then committed suicide by driving a dagger into his own throat.
Shi-Zheng and his team had a huge hit last year with the same composer’s Orfeo but certain elements, in particular the insertion into the action of routines by the Orange Blossom Dance Company, have only a tenuous relevance and add little this time. The designs are often visually pleasing, with a huge stylised prow of an ocean liner jutting onto the stage and a series of simple screens illuminated by suggestive lighting but they don’t alleviate the overall blandness of a production that resembles a psychedelic but rather dull party with an underwater theme.
There are flying gods and projected images aplenty, mostly of the lava-lamp kind with the cast also floating around like blobs of hot wax. Although the opera is shot through with sex, and Kate Royal as Poppea certainly looks mighty fine in an orange bikini, the evening is almost devoid of eroticism. Royal sits around in remote settings high on the prow of the ship, dangling in a flying cradle – looking and sounding languidly beautiful but there’s no hint of ambition or ruthlessness to a woman brazenly sleeping with the Emperor behind his wife’s back and keenly eyeing the crown.
Most of the characterisations are insipid and forgettable. Anna Grevelius‘s Nerone is prettily sung but makes little impression while Tim Mead‘s counter-tenor Ottone sounds forced, his drag routine (like Christopher Gillett‘s nurse Arnalta) adding a few cheap laughs but not much else.
With something of the character and spirit that shot her to prominence in Agrippina, Lucy Crowe is the one performer who makes you sit up and listen in each of her all-too brief scenes as an energetic and ringing Drusilla.
As Seneca, Robert Lloyd, returning to the Coliseum after a surprising 30 year absence, and Diana Montague in a brief appearance as Venus, bring maturity and experience to an otherwise youthful cast, not helped much by Laurence Cummings in the pit who conducts a languorous account of the score. An enhanced continuo, baroque bows and Cummings’ customary polish are not enough to ignite interest for more than a few moments at a time before dullness sets in for much longer periods.
The programme notes tell us “love her or hate her, Poppea will never leave you cold.” Sadly, that’s just what she did.