L’incoronazione di Poppea (Barbican, 4 October 2014)
Two different Poppeas in a little over a month? Monteverdi has steadily grown in me. One of these days he’ll join Mozart and R. Strauss amongs my top favourites. And the day shall come: it’s now official – although unsurprising – that we’ll see Il ritorno d’Ulisse1 at the Barbican next year!
Poppea: Lynne Dawson
Nerone: Sarah Connolly
Drusilla/Virtu: Sophie Junker
Amore/Damigella: Daniela Lehner
Ottavia: Marina de Liso
Seneca: Matthew Rose
Ottone: Iestyn Davies
Arnalta: Andrew Tortise
Nutrice: Vicki St Pierre
Lucano/2nd Soldier: Elmar Gilbertsson
Valletto/1st Soldier/Highest Familiari: Gwilym Bowen
Liberto/Middle Familiari: Richard Latham
Fortuna: Charmian Bedford
Conductor: Robert Howarth director | Academy of Ancient Music
Stage director: Alexander Oliver
The performance was dedicated to the founder of AAM, conductor Christopher Hogwood, who died late last month.
Pre-concert talk with Anthony Pryer (Goldsmiths, University of London): the talk was pretty good, it introduced Poppea in its historical context and went into the many meanings it had to those who saw it back then (1643) – why Seneca is the butt of jokes, why write an opera about a corrupt emperor – and that it’s the first historical opera, the influence of poet Giambattista Marino on Poppea librettist Giovanni Francesco Busenello etc. I guess I’d have added it’s one of the few libretti that stands as a play even without the music. It was fully attended, people even stood.
This semi-staged performance lost its original Poppea (Anna Caterina Antonacci) and conductor (Richard Egarr). Whereas I wasn’t fussed about Antonacci’s pulling out (with plenty of time to spare), after seeing Egarr conducting L’Orfeo here last year I was bummed. And I was even more bummed having seen Poppea at Grimeborn at the end of August.
I liked that one better.
It’s not that this wasn’t good. It was. Most of it. The semi-staging wasn’t bad. The singers wore costumes – contemporary – and there were chairs that made sense what with the idea of hierarchy at the heart of the opera. Amore sang from the Circle when s/he needed to save Poppea from Ottone’s murder attempt. Seneca’s followers mixed with the public for the vey dramatically powerful Don’t die, Seneca bit. It wasn’t bad but compared with the wit of the Grimeborn one it felt a bit old fashioned. The idea of pushing off the harpsichordist so that Lucano and Nerone could make their own music was just wicked: the Grimeborn production was simply funnier. Here I chuckled a few times, mostly thanks to Bowen (who was also in the Grimeborn production) and Andrew Tortise’s Arnalta and sometimes just because the text was funny (like when Ottone asks Drusilla for her clothes so that he can impersonate her whilst killing Poppea, at the various asides the nurses make).
The conducting/direction wasn’t bad, although maybe sometimes a bit lacking in momentum. But, again, I found the Grimeborn one to possess more sparkle and inventiveness. I know Monteverdi leaves a lot of room for interpretation, what with having provided little beside the vocal parts. Yet I still remember the bits I really liked from that one: the very inventive harpsichord accompaniment, the neat cello and trumpet. There were no trumpets here, but there were three harpsichords, which, true, at times collaborated very nicely with each other. But I don’t know that I will remember the orchestral part as I do the other one.
The singing wasn’t bad. In fact it was the best thing, as it should. But not all of it. Sarah Connolly (Nerone – commanding), Iestyn Davies (Ottone – tortured), Matthew Rose (Seneca – quite thoughtful), Daniela Lehner (Amore – cheeky) and Andrew Tortise (Arnalta – funny) were all excellent, no complaints there, either vocally or dramatically. Sorry to say I didn’t think Lynne Dawson made a good Poppea. As far as I’m concerned, Elizabeth Holmes from the Grimeborn production was far superior, both vocally and dramatically. I don’t know LD, but I venture to say Baroque may not be for her. Sorry if I’m dead wrong, but that’s how it seemed to me. I also preferred Maria Ostroukhova from Grimeborn’s as Ottavia over Marina de Liso. It was just a more memorable voice and presence, as I think Ottavia should have.
So, to conclude, it wasn’t bad. But I’ve seen better less than two months ago.
PS: Sorry, Leander, I tried but I didn’t spot you. I suggest we try to meet sometime at Wigmore Hall, it’s so much more of a less fussy meeting place. I also had some communication issues with the friends I was meeting there. The building is a nightmare… and the mobile connection is faulty. I guess today wasn’t exactly my day 😉