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L’incoronazione di pop culture reference (Theater an der Wien, 19 October 2015)

Do you know that feeling when you have a lot to say about something but the ideas, interesting as they may be, never quite gel together? The more you try to patch them together, the muddier it gets? This production is a lot like that: too clever and too facile at the same time. There are flashes of brilliance and then simple gags literally explained to you.


Poppea: Alex Penda
Nerone: Valer Sabadus
Ottone: Christophe Dumaux
Ottavia: Jennifer Larmore
Seneca: Franz-Josef Selig
Drusilla: Sabina Puertolas
Nutrice: Marcel Beekman
Arnalta: Jose Manuel Zapata
Fortuna: Victorija Bakan
Virtu | Pallade: Natalia Kawalek
Amore | 1. Famigliare: Jake Arditti
Damigella: Gaia Petrone
Valletto: Emilie Renard
Lucano | 1. Soldat | Konsul | 2. Famigliare: Rupert Charlesworth
Liberto | 2. Soldat | Konsul: Manuel Gunther
Mercurio | Tribun | 3. Famigliare: Christoph Seidl
Littore | Tribun: Tobias Greenhalgh
Conductor: Jean-Christophe Spinosi | Ensemble Matheus

Director: Claus Guth

I went in thinking that conceptually this could be either great or shit. It was neither. It had excellent singing/playing, dramatic commitment across the board and a mish-mash of ideas that added up to brain overload. It’s something of such glutonous glory that it couldn’t be described in any less words, though possibly more would’ve done it rounder justice.

Nerone. It’s safe to say that Valer Sabadus has one of the most beautiful top registers in use today. I was sitting there marvelling at how gorgeous every note sounded – all of a sudden more pleasant that I had ever heard them – how well the trills were controlled and how clearly they were produced. Remarkable qualities and lucky us who have heard it all unfold under our eyes.  the full monty

L’incoronazione di Poppea (Bucharest, 19 September 2015)

The timely intervention of dumb luck; manipulation and corruption rewarded; virtue and steadfastness cast out; tonely Seneca as moral compass turned butt of jokes – truly an opera for our times.

This ace Midnight Concert by the Academy of Ancient Music and Co. was the last one at this year’s George Enescu Festival (the Midnight Series was dedicated to Baroque music this time), but yours truly wasn’t available for the livestreaming. So here’s a good opportunity to publicly thank thadieu for giving us all (yea, I saw the many clicks) the great gift of livestreaming capture 😀 Big pot o’soup for ya!

poppeafinalePoppea: Louise Adler
Nerone: Sarah Connolly
Ottavia: Marina de Liso
Ottone: Iestyn Davies
Seneca: David Soar
Arnalta: Andrew Tortise
Drusilla/Virtu: Sophie Junker
Amore/Damigella: Daniella Lehner
Nutrice: John Lattimore
Valetto/First Soldier: Joshua Ellicott
Conductor: Robert Egarr | Academy of Ancient Music | George Enescu Festival, Ateneul Român

Given Poppea’s bare shoulder hazard (I demand modest clothing! 😉 ), I made it through with intact concentration by first just listening to it. Perhaps I should bring a blindfold to live performances just in case 😉 But the upshot was I could properly focus on the music/singing/playing. Apparently they had one hour of rehearsal before Ulisse, so one imagines it was more or less the same in this case.

These days Poppea has joined Tito and Alcina in the rarefied abode known as my top 3 operas1. It hit me when I realised just how much I like Poppea and Nerone’s mostly spoken back and forths. Surprisingly, I also got all excited every time Ottone barged in with his wistful laments. Then again, I’ve never heard ID below competent and this role lets his sensitive countertenor voice shine.

Mr Greenhill has achieved the most with the least means. I just love how Nerone and Poppea converse then all of a sudden melody takes off in the most natural manner, just enough to shape the emotional content of the text.


I ended up replaying this bit for 5-6 times until I found myself chanting my own thoughts to the tune of Poppea’s non posso, non posso, non posso… and Egarr’s great harpsichord setup for the (equally ace) coloratura after Nernone’s non temer, non temer…! Then Poppea “loses” her patience and asks demands tornerai? and Nerone says tornero! in an ardent yet playful manner. No fuss, no unnecessary complications, just the right amount of manipulation and ardor = gripping. It might be faulty memory, but I’ve a feeling this performance was way better than last year’s at the Barbican.

The TVR2 presenter asked a good question awkwardly during the intermission of Ulisse: would this music be boring if the singers were not into it? Most certainly! Wouldn’t any music? But, yes, here there’s definitely no fancy orchestration to hide behind. Either you’re into it or it’s going to be torture. Done well this is theatre at its best. Take for instance the moment where Nerone closes his eyes and floats a long and satisfied/seductive addio…! at Poppea. She responds with knowing sexiness via another long held note; the stuff of dreams, the Connolly/Adler pairing is ace (more, please!).

Out of the smaller roles – all well sung but one still has to pick – Daniela Lehner as Amore/Damigella fearlessly let it rip through the evening to amusing results (where Damigella beat her inconstant dreamboy with the score). She’s got a remarkable mezzo voice (very secure, heroic middle) which I hope we’ll soon see grow into the top mezzo roles that are waiting to be tackled by the new generation.

Outside of music and singing, one of the best things about TVR2 broadcasting this concert performance was Nerone’s badass coat. SC wore it to great effect last year as well, so let’s see it in more detail:


Screw the Senate and the people!

  1. femme fatales ftw! 

Poppea, Poppea, lascia ch’io parta!

Remember this post?

Well… statistics say1 that you’re most likely to book another opera trip right after you returned from one. My arm was very painfully twisted (ow, ow) by Leander. So I booked a ticket to see what Penda + Sabadus and Co. (with Emilie Renard) will do in Wien in October under the strange parenting of Guth and Spinosi.

What goes with Monteverdi? (Mozartkugeln! Schnitzel! Waltz! But Wien without Der Rosenkavalier…?)

  1. I made that one up! 😀 thadieu, maybe you should come too, see it done properly the European way (plus at least two mezzos in the mix). 

Curious Poppea at Theater an der Wien (October 2015)

Theater and der Wien is at it again – sounds like this could be an event all right: conducted by Spinosi (so chipper?), directed by Guth (so maybe not chipper but possibly weird) and sung by these folks:

Nerone: Valer Sabadus (eh heh, Nerone wishes he looked like that)
Poppea: Alex Penda (I kid you not! Poor Sabadus, how will he cope in those duets, especially the last one 😀 )
Ottone: Christophe Dumaux
Ottavia: Jennifer Larmore (I didn’t know she was back in the saddle! Hope all is good)
Drusilla: Sabina Puertolas
Lucano (and others): Rupert Charlesworth (the smooth-voiced Jupiter/Apollo in the recent London Semele)
Valletto: Emilie Renard (the (very) cute/joyful Arbace in the London Catone in Utica)

and many others I don’t know. Leander wants to go see it and I have to say I am quite tempted myself since it could end up being all sorts of things.

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 😉

  1. Yay! Can Marijana Mijanovic be Penelope, pretty please? She’s still singing, right? Hell, even if she’s not! 

The Coronation of Poppea (Grimeborn Festival, 29 August 2014)

Grimeborn is supposed to be the opposite of (and poke fun at) Glyndebourne and in many ways it is. It takes place at the Arcola Theatre, a venue in the heart of Dalston (within earshot of the Dalston Junction Overground station). Dalston has been considered a hip, arty area for a while now, long enough to wonder if it still is seen so. I leave these considerations to those who care more than I do. Fact is, the venue looks like a disaffected factory, all brickwork and steel frames. It’s got that East London “wine bar” charm to it, similarly buzzing with youthful chatting before the show and during the intermission. It’s manned by a lot of young people. But the audience last night was more or less around the same age as you’d get at ROH, only now they were going for the casual look.

Monteverdi kicks off a season (for me) steeped in pre-19th century works1. There are also a number of new venues I am visiting in an effort to broaden my horizons.

  • Fortune/Ottavia: Maria Ostroukhova Grimepoppea
  • Virtue: Rose Stachniewska
  • Love: Caroline Kennedy
  • Ottone: Ben Williamson
  • Soldier #1/Nutrice: Tim Morss
  • Soldier #2/Liberto/Lucano/: Gwilym Bowen
  • Poppea: Elizabeth Holmes
  • Nero: Stephanie Marshall
  • Arnalta: Rosie Aldridge
  • Seneca: James Fisher

Musical Director: Christopher Glynn | Eboracum Baroque | Harpsichord: Ian Tindale | Director: Nina Brazier | a Ryedale Opera Festival production

I really enjoyed the intimate feel of the 9 piece orchestra. The strings + trumpet2 were perched high above the tiny stage (on a small balcony, across from the balcony per se), to the left. The harpsichord, harp, theorbo and organ were, as you can glimpse, behind the singers. I suppose it feels more or less how it did when the work was first performed. Now I don’t want to hear this stuff done any other way3… The harpsichord accompaniment specifically stood out for me – gently supporting the singers.

Those colourful boxes (plus some dress forms “dressed as” different characters) were the stage design. They were arranged (by the singers themselves) in different positions to suggest Poppea’s bed, Ottavia’s desk, Seneca’s bath or the podium where Nero and Poppea towered like godlike creatures at the end. A word has to go out to the lovely, Mediterranean-inspired dresses for the female characters. Nero himself was, as you can see, white-shirt happy, Seneca wore a three piece suit, the soldiers had WWI hats, Ottone looked like he came from the audience itself.

The singing wasn’t bad across the board, although I think all could use more work on their trills. Stephanie Marshall’s were the best trills of the bunch but I’d have liked a less bright voice for Nero. Maria Ostroukhova’s Ottavia had a gorgeously warm voice for a thankless role. Poor Ottavia and Seneca (who was made to look like a fool by all), there’s no winning for them and it’s not like they’re doing much to deserve it. It’s a cruel, glib, tongue-in-cheek comedy, eh?

The acting was by and large convincing and enthusiastic, very good timing for comedy. For the bit where Nero and Lucano sing about how good it is to be rid of Seneca/how hot Poppea is, the singers pushed the harpsichord player away and kidnapped the instrument! Nero brought his own notebook of songs. Cool point, seeing as how Nero dabbled in poetry and music and generally behaved in “whimsical” ways.

All in all, a very entertaining evening. I hope somebody – anybody – brings Il ritorno d’Ulisse around soon 😉 now that ROH is finally staging L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse.

  1. But why did everybody around here forget about Gluck’s anniversary?! 
  2. All of them looking very sleepy. 
  3. I tend to grumble there’s not enough of this stuff (as in, none) at ROH but it’s probably for the better. 

Alcina and Poppea at The Barbican (October 2014)

Yes! I got tickets to see Alcina and Poppea in October at The Barbican! With JDD and Alice Coote! Sarah Connolly (again) and Iestyn Davies! Yes! I was so excited I had to force myself to go to sleep at 5:30am just so I wasn’t a complete wreck today. Now I can go back to sleep 😀 😀 😀

4 October, 19:00 | Poppea

Academy of Ancient Music
Richard Egarr Robert Howarth 
Anna Caterina Antonacci Lynne Dawson Poppea
Sarah Connolly Nerone
Marina de Liso Ottavia
Iestyn Davies Ottone
Matthew Rose Seneca

10 October, 19:00 | Alcina

English Concert
Harry Bicket director/harpsichord
Joyce DiDonato Alcina
Alice Coote Ruggiero
Anna Christie Morgana
Christine Rice Bradamante
Ben Johnson Oronte
Wojtek Gierlach Melisso
Anna Devin Oberto

*ACA pulled out of it at some point (edit: 22/09/14); Egarr pulled out earlier this week for personal reasons (edit: 4/10/14).