Monteverdi’s last opera might seem an over-ambitious work for young singers in a Summer Festival setting, but in fact it’s ideal; all those over-wrought passions and vicious social climbing – let alone the tyranny and rampant sexual jealousy on display, work so much better when the singers are fresh and youthful and, one hopes, have yet to experience the full extent of such things. Mind you, given that they are mostly already set on operatic careers, one might want to think again on that score.
Nina Brazier’s production is just about as simple as can be, with just a few decorative boxes to stand for plinths, beds and chairs, and the costuming is on the eclectic side, with Poppea and Nero looking like models for Primark honeymoon nightwear and M&S guy-about-town respectively. The instrumentalists – the excellent Eboracum Baroque, unflappably directed by Chris Parsons, who also plays a mean trumpet – are placed behind the singers yet the balance is very well judged and maintained, and even in this cavernous acoustic it was possible to distinguish nearly every word of John Warrack’s new translation, which was lively, idiomatic and as musical as you would expect.
There were really promising young voices on display here, some with big-house background and some just emerging. Stephanie Marshall was an ENO principal artist for many years after winning the 2001 Ferrier prize, and although she still looks about nineteen her wide experience showed in her confident, swaggering impersonation of Nero and her assured, pliant phrasing. Her Poppea was a recent M.A. graduate from the RCM, Elizabeth Holmes, from whom we will surely be hearing a great deal more in future – this is a highly intelligent singing actress (she also has an English degree and has won ‘Best Supporting Actor’ at the National Student Drama Festival) with a warm, fluent soprano and a beguiling stage presence. They made a striking pair, the two voices complementing each other to moving effect in that matchless final duet.
They were surrounded by a cast which included singers who would not sound out of place in much better-known venues. Thomas Morss as 1st Soldier / Nutrice and Gwilym Bowen as 2nd Soldier / Liberto respectively, were especially promising both vocally and dramatically – Gwilym studies with Ryland Davies, and it shows. Maria Oustrokhova’s dignified, sympathetic Ottavia / Fortune, James Fisher’s sonorous Seneca, Ben Williamson’s plausibly love-lorn Ottone and Rebecca van den Berg’s sweet-toned Drusilla were all notable performances, and Rosie Aldridge was an Arnalta in the properly comic-wise tradition.
Monday’s performance was the last fully staged opera at this year’s festival, but there are chances to hear more vocal music over the next ten days, including a recital by Christiane Karg (one of the stars of both Glyndebourne’s 2013 and 2014 seasons) in the wonderful setting of Duncombe Park on Sunday 20th at 8pm: her delectable programme includes Strauss’ Four Last Songs. The ‘Coffee Concert’ at 11am on Wednesday 23rd – also at Duncombe Park – features Elizabeth Holmes singing Liszt, Schubert, Schumann and Strauss. Those inclined towards less ‘heavy’ repertoire should head for delightful Escrick, near York on Thursday 24th, for a ‘Richard Rodgers Day’ featuring two concerts introduced by Edward Seckerson and sandwiched around a picnic. More details at www.ryedalefestival.com