I wasn’t actually planning to go and see this at all, but what with everyone else watching the rugby, I thought I’d nip along and pick up a cheap ticket – no harm done if I didn’t like it. Fortunately, I did like it. Despite knowing nothing whatsoever about the story, it was easy to follow, and despite knowing next to nothing about Monteverdi, the musical style and structure was easy to settle into.
The performance opened with a scene in which Virtue, Fortune, and Love bicker about stuff. They strutted on in lurid PVC dresses and funky wigs (from a shop on Camden High Street, I think) with some nice multimedia video projection shenanigans going on behind. The designs reminded me a bit of the film The 5th Element, and I hoped the production would keep with the old-school-futuristic theme, as I rather liked it. It didn’t, the remainder being sometimes futuristic, sometimes exotic, and sometimes plain naff, but always colourful and visually engaging. Most of the time there was a big ship, sometimes a bath, occasionally random abstract objects sliding and rolling around the stage, video projections, and various supernatural beings (and Poppea) being dangled from wires.
Both music and production have come in for a fair amount of flak from critics. Not being generally a fan of period instruments, I found the sound of the orchestra, under Laurence Cummings, surprisingly powerful and accurate. No squawking and whistling from baroque woodwinds, and no broken-sewing-machine effects from the massed harpsichords; viols with depth of tone, and the whole thing decently in tune. At the start, some of the voices seemed not to be cutting through fully, but after 15 mins or so either they warmed up and projected more, or perhaps the balance was just sorted out. I have heard several people comment that the tempi were too slow in general. I cannot comment on whether they were historically correct tempi, but I thought the livelier numbers could have done with a bit of acceleration; some of the slow ones, however, benefited from the ultra-largo tempo. Ignorant as I am of this period, I was surprised at how chromatic and discordant some of the music was, and it was really effective to linger on particularly crunchy suspensions before resolving. Less effective was the translation, with some deliberate anachronisms (“sod the legion”, “he’s a toss-pot”, etc.) getting a cheap laugh from the audience at the expense of suspension of disbelief.
Nerone was played by Anna Grevelius as a spiky-haired brattish adolescent, with Poppea (Kate Royal) as a lazily (or possibly drugged-up) callous bitch with a penchant for fluorescent orange clothing. Not that she wore very much clothing most of the time, but to be fair, she did look quite attractive in her bikini. Unfortunately she seemed to have Grayson Perry for her nurse Arnalta (actually Christopher Gillett, looking ridiculous for more cheap laughs). Lack of clothing turned out to be a feature of the production – almost in a return to the spirit of a few years ago, when Colly productions seemed incomplete without a handsome bass-baritone stripping off for no apparent reason, or a naked lady running around the stage randomly. Valetto and Damigella (I think it was them, anyway) also strip down to their underwear at one point, and Ottavia (Doreen Curran) lolls around in purple undies and a nasty cheapass nylon nightie, sometimes supplemented by what looked (from the balcony) like rubber stockings. Not really an appropriate outfit for an empress to wear in front of her subjects, I think, if she wishes to command respect. It also didn’t help that she spent the whole time lolling on a giant glowing cushion, but some lackeys/dancers kept twirling it around, so she had to keep crawling round in circles so as not to have her back to the audience.
Ottone (Tim Mead) and Drusilla (Lucy Crowe) also took their clothes off on stage, and then put on eachother’s – however, I gather from the dialogue that this was actually in the original story. This turned out to be an improvement, in fact, as Ottone had previously looked like an 80s throwback, perhaps a member of A-ha (didn’t Morton H also have some very high notes?), whereas he made an almost fetching drag queen in Drusilla’s lurid pink babydoll dress. He already had the high voice to go with it, which – for a countertenor – sounded really quite pleasant. Drusilla also did well in the swap, as Ottone’s jeans and jacket looked better on her, and gave her a bit more gravitas for the scene where she tries to offer her life to save him. This scene was really beautifully sung by Crowe, and one of the high points of the performance.
Another highlight was Diana Montague, too briefly appearing as Venus (and Ottavia’s nurse). The best bit for me, though, was Robert Lloyd’s Seneca. Gorgeous voice, stunning low notes, and thoughtfully acted, without any of the panto mugging of some of the others on stage. Seneca’s suicide scene was very moving, and it was clear that for this short space of time, the entire audience was completely gripped. I gather that there are historical sources which report Seneca dying in the bath. Somehow I doubt it was the author’s intention that this should be followed by a pair of randy teenagers jumping in the same bath for a quick shag, apparently failing to notice the bloody corpse in there with them (although we could still see his head poking out quite clearly). This was really not a good way to lighten the mood.
Another set of juxtapositions which perplexed me a little was the dance troupe who appeared now and then. It’s a big stage, and I can see why the director might have wanted to fill it up a bit (although this wasn’t in fact necessary). The troupe were all elegantly sinuous, seemed jolly good at dancing, and were kitted out in a variety of attractive costumes, with the female dancers sometimes sporting a cool neon-wigged sci-fi look. Unfortunately the dancing that they were required to do often seemed entirely unconnected to either the rest of the action on stage or the music playing at that point. I’m trying to remember the specific musical examples – and failing – but there was really no reason I could see at any point in the story for the female dancers to shuffle on (in silver bikinis) and start doing a funny floppy jiggling dance before falling over in some kind of seizure. Neither did a serious moment benefit from having the male dancers strut on (in very shiny purple shorts) and do a funny straddle-legged space invaders dance – around poor old Seneca’s bathtub, if I remember rightly. Having said that, there were times when they decorated the stage very effectively, and I loved the tableau at the end where they grow butterfly wings and hover in the air around Poppea’s coronation. (Not that she actually gets a crown, but she does get a new orange dress, in PVC for a change.)
I’m hardly going to be the first to comment that it’s an odd sort of story in which the scheming adulteress and murderer-by-proxy is protected by the celestial spirits and rewarded by becoming Empress, while the wronged wife is exiled in disgrace. However, although Nero(ne) is here shown as mostly just an arrogant brat, his violent tendencies are made quite clear, giving a firm implication that the marriage is unlikely to be good for Poppea in the long run. Presumably audiences were expected to know that at some point not too far in the future, she would die at Nero’s hand (or foot, rather), and the rejoicing that ends the opera is tainted by our bitter foreknowledge. Or perhaps not, and Monteverdi and Busenello were saving that for the shocking sequel?