Opera + Classical Music Reviews

L’incoronazione di Poppea review – never bet against Love

14 June 2024

The Grange Festival gives us insight into the machinations of Mount Olympus and Rome.

L'incoronazione di Poppea

Vanessa Waldhart, Sam Furness & Kitty Whately (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Ubi amor, ubi dolor – where there is love, there is pain – might stand as the motto for this daring production of Monteverdi’s masterpiece, staged within a framework of classic simplicity and removing most of the gloss from the ‘love story’ of Nero and Poppea. You can always rely on The Grange Festival to come up with a different take on an opera, and here we have the anti-romantic version in which it’s the second part of Amore’s identity as the god(dess) of Love and Lust wins the experiment.

Jon Bausor’s set design looks like a sketch for what remains of the grand classical mansion that was The Grange, and it’s surmounted by a panel upon which reflections upon human nature, love and war are displayed. This is in keeping with the Roman attitude to life, since they loved to carve, inscribe and write – by naming something you own it, and this is reflected not only in the Roman desire for conquest but also in the desire of the characters to possess and dominate.

Walter Sutcliffe’s direction shows understanding of the conflicts of the characters – as in an opera by Handel, they appear, deal with a crisis in their lives, and then retreat. There were times when one might have wished for a little more specific guidance for the protagonists, although more than enough was provided by La Nuova Musica under the insistent, pulsating beat of David Bates, whose players excelled in every bar. The Triple Harps and Theorbos in particular deserved their ovations.

“You can always rely on The Grange Festival to come up with a different take on an opera…”

L'incoronazione di Poppea

Kitty Whately & Sam Furness (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Kitty Whately was a voluptuous, charismatic Poppea who had no trouble in showing why Nerone became infatuated with her, and she phrased her music with her accustomed musicality. The casting of Nerone with a  tenor is unusual, and some might feel that the tone of a mezzo-soprano would sound more luscious, but Sam Furness gave it his all. Costumed in a sort of combination of a romper suit and the garb of a patient in an institution, he displayed the full gamut of Nerone’s petulance and obsession.

When you have such singers as Anna Bonitatibus and Jonathan Lemalu to cast as Ottavia and Seneca respectively, the temper of the production is bound to rise whenever they take the stage. Ottavia’s great lament for her rejected status and her anguished farewell to Rome were high points of the evening, just as Seneca’s perorations on life and death were not only superbly sung but deeply affecting.

Vanessa Waldhart and Christopher Lowrey made a convincing pair of lovers, although it was as Amore that the soprano really shone. The nurses / confidantes were splendidly played by Frances Gregory and Fiona Kimm, with the latter giving yet another of her masterclasses in stealing the show in the best possible way. Gwilym Bowen showed his star quality as Lucano / Soldier.

For audiences used to an idyllic conclusion to this opera, the ending might come as a bit of a shock, but it’s certainly a more realistic take on history. One might quibble with a few of the production choices (did the Romans have access to such powerful stimulants? Maybe not but then they didn’t have mobile phones, either, and they certainly took in plenty of what Bacchus provided) but when you decide to be daring, as The Grange Festival tends to be, you’re never going to enchant everyone. The audience on this second night absolutely loved it.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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L’incoronazione di Poppea review – never bet against Love