There are always fresh flowers on Monteverdi’s tombstone in Venice. After a performance as uplifting as ENO’s new production of The Coronation of Poppea, this is understandable. A fresh, new translation and a wonderful post-modern production by Steven Pimlott bring new perspectives to this piece, which – as with all early operas – can seem beautiful but stilted. This performance, on the contrary, opens with a bang (quite literally, as Nerone leaves Poppea’s bed, stark naked) and presents ancient Rome in all its tacky, gaudy and amoral magnificence.
Nerone himself is stunningly interpreted by the young American counter-tenor David Walker. His voice is exquisite and he is totally believable as the petulant, self-centred, gilded youth who, having fallen for the charms of Poppea, can’t wait to get rid of the inconvenient obstacles (such as his Empress Octavia and mentor Seneca) which prevent him marrying her. Poppea herself is no less a triumph. Alice Coote gives us the Roman equivalent of an Essex girl, her ambition to become Empress sweeping aside all scruples. Dressed to kill but singing like an angel, she’s happy to tuck into a huge bowl of pasta as soon as Nerone has left her bedroom.
The production is full of witty details of characterisation along these lines – Anne-Marie Owens in particular thoroughly enjoys herself as Arnalta, Poppea’s maid, at last seeing herself becoming a lady when her mistress is crowned. Octavia is dignified, murderous and ultimately resigned as the aristocratic wife threatened by the tart, moving from elegant ballgown, through hunting gear, to the classic trenchcoat and beret of the French resistance agent for her final exile.
Stefanos Lazaridis – surely one of ENO’s most imaginative and reliable of designers, with over 25 productions to his credit – provides a multiple-use set. Consisting of a central platform surrounded by scaffolding, ladders and stairways, it extends out into the auditorium to add to the sense of involvement in this production. Is it a reference to Nero building his Domus Aurea? Perhaps. In any case it works wonderfully well, with helpful colour-coded lighting (I especially liked the candy pink every time Poppea made an entrance). It also made the many scene changes easy and fast, with only one jarring note. It seemed a bit rough on poor, dignified Seneca, having dutifully slit his wrists, to have a couple from the next scene make love behind his still-warm corpse – which, one assumes, could not be conveniently removed from the stage.
That minor cavil aside, the production as a whole is marvellous. Every word of the new (and very funny) translation is audible: placing the small orchestra of authentic instruments behind the stage must have helped in this respect. The sensitive conducting of Harry Christophers – founder of The Sixteen – making His ENO debut could not have been bettered, and contributed greatly to the magic of the evening.
The final, blissful, duet for Nerone and Poppea brought tears to the eyes. Always an exquisite aria, the wonderful blend of soprano and high counter-tenor, the simplicity of the white costumes and the blue-washed set, was sublime. One could almost believe, in that moment, that the story would have a happy ending.