This semi-staged performance of Monteverdi’s last opera was the second in the Academy Of Ancient Music’s three-year cycle of the composer’s operas, which began last year with Orfeo. On that occasion, we wished the furies could have come and trashed the production, but this version of Poppea had been entrusted to Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson, so there was nothing in the way of gallimaufry and very little pointless posturing. Oliver’s name may be familiar from his iconic Iro in the classic Glyndebourne staging of Il ritorno di Ulisse in Patria, and he used his immense experience of the stage to present a clear-cut, sometimes surprising reading of the story of Rome’s most dysfunctional extended family.
The path to performance had not been a smooth one – first they lost their Poppea (Anna Caterina Antonacci) then their director (Richard Egarr) so the cast were working with stand-ins for two of the most important members; the replacement of Egarr with Robert Howarth was successful, that of the soprano with Lynne Dawson, less so. The star of the show was the Ottone of Iestyn Davies, singing with absolute assurance, vivid projection and the kind of clarity which one can usually only dream of in a hall of this size. He conveyed all of the disappointed lover’s confusion and dejection, his arias and recitatives a model of baroque style. Fortunately he did not have to don a slinky silver lamé gown for this production, as he once did at the Proms, and his approach through the stalls on his way to attempting to stab Poppea, was highly effective.
Much use was made of the auditorium, with some of the ‘gods’ singing from the circle and the ‘famigliare’ declaring their love of life from the stalls. Gwilym Bowen made the most of this, his Valletto/ 1st soldier / Famigliare highlighting his confident stage presence and agile, fluent tenor – what a pleasure to hear this very promising singer again after his strong showing in the Ryedale Festival version of this work. As with that performance, the roles of Arnalta and Seneca were very well cast, with Matthew Rose here a more than usually schoolmasterly philosopher and Andrew Tortise giving an object lesson in how to sing with beauty of tone whilst bringing the comic aspects of a character to life.
The concept of Nerone as a spoilt, tantrum-prone brat was not an entirely happy one. This was no reflection on Sarah Connolly, who gave a typically committed, eloquently sung performance, her tone rich and her sensitivity of phrasing undiminished, but it did not sit well alongside the motherly style of Lynne Dawson. The soprano was already a respected figure in the Early Music world before many of the rest of the cast were born, so it was hardly surprising that she no longer has the resources to fill out Poppea’s lines, and she was not helped by having to flit about like the tooth fairy. As the complete professional she is, Dawson did all she could to convince, and there were echoes of her characteristically sweet, pearly tone sometimes in evidence. The exquisite final duet was staged as though Poppea were rejoicing more in the possession of the crown than the emperor – a valid reading of course, but one that removes a little of the music’s romance.
Strong supporting performances came from Sophie Junker as a feisty Drusilla, and Marina de Liso as a somewhat subdued but still noble Ottavia. The pared-down orchestra played with fervour, dispelling any worries one might have had about the fairly late change of conductor – Robert Howarth’s style is perhaps somewhat less flamboyant than that of Richard Eggar, but it’s clear that they share the same passion for this music as the AAM’s founder, the late Christopher Hogwood, to whom the performance was dedicated.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.