BBC Proms reviews

Prom 18: Monteverdi – The Coronation of Poppaea @ Royal Albert Hall, London

31 July 2008

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Glyndebourne’s recently-premiered Coronation of Poppaea was under constant threat of being swallowed up in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall but Robert Carsen’s production (re-staged by Bruno Ravella) was so enthralling that one was drawn in to the action and the difficulties soon receded into the background. The Sussex opera house has been bringing semi-staged versions of new productions to the Proms for a number of years and they take the stripped-down format as far as it can go, with extensive use of costumes and props and a raised platform giving more than just a taste of the full experience.

Monteverdi’s opera works on an intimate and personal as well as historical and mythical level and the workings of gods and emperors sit side by side with domestic struggles of love and ambition. Spilling from the arena, where the gods began their spat among the promenaders, Fortune (Sonya Yoncheva) was portrayed as a flaunting “loadsamoney” beauty with Virtue (Simona Mahai) a meek nun, destined to be the night’s big loser. Late-arriving Love (flame-haired and light-voiced Amy Freston as Cupid), spearing victory on the point of an arrow, was to become an ever-present agent of destiny.

Carsen’s production drips with sensuality. Expectations were high for Danielle de Niese’s Poppaea and she did not dissappoint, with a girlish, sexy performance, short perhaps on scheming but with a voice that has developed since her triumph here as Handel’s Cleopatra three years ago. Alice Coote’s Nero was predictably strong, beautifully sung and increasingly creepy, metamorphosing into a frock-coated and casually tyrannical godfather figure. He not only nonchalantly orders the death of Seneca (a relatively youthful but sympathetic Paolo Battaglia) but also, in this interpretation, indulges himself in the pervy and opportunistic killing of his friend Lucan.

There was cruelty too from unexpected quarters, as Tamara Mumford’s dignified and luscious Octavia dispensed death sentences, out of desperation perhaps but ruthless nonetheless. Having her heavily pregnant, despite her husband’s assertion that she is “frigid and barren”, added a poignancy and emphasised Nero’s all too recognisably callous treatment of her. Marie Arnet brought depth to Drusilla, also not as innocent as she claims, coercing her lover to wipe out her rival.

An extravaganza of transvestisism saw comical turns by the splendidly-named Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and Dominique Visse as the nurses, the latter counter-tenor strongly resembling a male impersonation of a former British prime minister, with frequent drops into a lower register. Even Iestyn Davies’ likeable and warmly-sung Otho turned up in female garb, while mezzo Lucia Cirillo made a strong mark as a cross-dressed Page.

Emmanuelle Ham, on keyboard, conducted the compact Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment unobtrusively, lingering over Monteverdi’s gorgeous melodies and somehow cutting through the cruel and dampening acoustics. At close to four hours, this was a long (not to mention hot) but rewarding and ultimately uplifting evening.

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