S&H Opera reviews

Monteverdi The Coronation of Poppea ENO, The Coliseum, 7 10 00 (PGW)

This was a joyous evening, resolving initial doubts about Stefanos Lazaridis's all-purpose scaffolding for ENO's ambitious Italian season, which had added to the confusion of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. Poppea rarely fails to delight and this was the best of the several excellent productions I have seen since the '60s, when Raymond Leppard brought Italian late Renaissance opera to our notice.

The librettist Giovanni Busenello was one of a group of writers sceptical of the intentions of Europe's rulers, their writings ironical in tone and designed to illustrate the incompatibility of words and deeds. This was sharply demonstrated in the swift transfer of affections shown by the fickle, hapless cross-dressed, would-be murderer Ottone (counter-tenor Michael Chance in excellent voice). The juxtapositions of sentiment and crude humour in the modern-sounding play (Busenello updated by Christopher Cowell) were managed with a light touch by director Stephen Pimlott, whose ideas were all focussed upon the strong team of actor-singers, which incorporated two excellent substitutes amongst the 17 principals on 6 October; as winter approaches the period of seasonal indispositions, which can be a nightmare for opera companies, is now upon us. Sophie Grimmer replaced Linda Richardson as Virtue and Heather Shipp (a former Park Lane Group recitalist, making her ENO debut as Poppea) played and sang as if she had been the eponymous anti-heroine from the beginning, chilling in her innocent-seeming allure whilst engineering her climb to power.

A particular pleasure was the exceptional audibility of words (from fourth row seats in the circle). In this was the quietest evening ever spent at the vast Coliseum; the singers never needed to strain or force their voices and it was astonishing how the twelve-strong period ensemble drew you in, every note from such intimate instruments as recorder, theorbo & lyraviol clear and characterful. The King's Music edition used was that of Clifford Bartlett and the informative programme book carries discussions of the director's thinking and Harry Christophers' choices of voices and instrumentation, all fully vindicated in the result, a great Night at the Opera.

I am delighted to welcome below a review of the first night of Poppea, reprinted from The Organ with kind permission of its author, Editor Brian Hick.

Peter Grahame Woolf

English National Opera have risked much for their Italian season but so far the omens are extremely good. Stefanos Lazaridis has provided a scaffolding structure with balconies and ladders which unites both stage and audience, thrusting the action out into the house and giving a sense of immediacy and creativity strikingly at odds with the conservative image of opera.

The scaffolding speaks of change and experiment, the reverse of the musical museum which has so often dogged opera houses across the world. It is a particularly apt vehicle for Steven Pimlott's new production of Monteverdi's last work which oozes a sense of danger throughout. This is partly as a result of the placing of the musicians behind the high circular central platform and the reality that for most of the evening the singers can't see the conductor and the conductor has little control over the singers! That the musical outcome was so sublimely satisfying was a tribute not only to Harry Christopher's approach but also to the security and trust within the ensemble.

Harry Christopher drew together twelve specialists in baroque music, including ENO Head of Music Anthony Legge on keyboards - harpsichord, regal and organ - to ensure that the score could be improvised in production and that both instrumentalists and singers could be encouraged to react to the moment as they would have done in the composer's own time. As improvisation is at the heart of organ playing I found this approach thrilling throughout in the same way that live theatre can often take off through the interaction of the actors but music frequently fails to do - we may get technical perfection, all the right notes in the right place, but the result can be deadly.

Much of the credit must go to Steven Pimlott who creates a credible world, able to move swiftly from comedy to deep emotion without any sense of gear crunching on the way. Much has been made of the Shakespearean structure of Poppea but in the wrong hands this can seem crass and inept. Here we have a highly sensuous society where Seneca's garden alone seems to avoid the constant drive for sensual pleasure to say nothing of sexual satisfaction.

Casting is an near faultless as one could wish. David Walker's blond god Nerone is convincingly fascist at heart without any need to overplay his corruption. He is well matched in Alice Coote's steamy Poppea who appears to have little interest in anything except sex - an aptly modern metaphor. Eric Owens makes Seneca a more complex character than is often the case with Toby Stafford-Allen's virile Valletto able to confront him all too easily.

In a work where everyone seems to be on the make we may not find the characters likeable but they are certainly persuasive, none less than Anne-Marie Owens Arnalta who revels in her upward mobility.

With such a large cast it is impossible to draw out all of the felicities and yet again it is ENO's ability to create an ensemble which is so impressive. The text carries as if it were a play - exactly as Monteverdi intended - supported by the lushest of instrumental textures.

Ingeborg Bernerth creates believable clothes for the mortals which set both social status and sensuality - all of the dresses seem to be all too easily removable - while the immortals recall their renaissance rather than classical origins. Peter Mumford's lighting is frequently atmospheric and telling, particularly given the difficult new angles with which he is working.

Anyone interested in music theatre must see this, and any organ lovers who think they understand improvisation but are not used to is outside of a recital need to experience what a joy it can be in the hands of a master ensemble rather than the individual.
Brian Hick

More performances on 25, 27, 29, Sept, 3, 6, 10, 12, 16, 19, 21 Oct. Box Office 020 7632 8300 Fax: 020 7379 1264 www.eno.org

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