English Touring Opera
28 September 2013
The final duet, sung by Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Philippe Jaroussky.
Would you believe these characters are psychopaths? From here.
A triumph, focussing on the serious side of this masterpiece.
ETO's current season is a superb idea: three operas from the period, let's say 1640-1720, when Venice was the centre of the newly-created artform.
Among the three, the earliest composed is not only the greatest opera before Gluck's mature period from the 1760s, but one of the greatest of all dramas, and I think the only opera to genuinely compare with Shakespeare's works in style and power.
Even Shakespeare might have found this difficult: low comedy, high tragedy and a final celebration of the immorality of love. The love between Nerone and Poppea does not transcend good and evil, but is shown directly to be evil, though it is also shown to be so much more vivid, more alive, than anything else.
Seneca's death scene is extremely moving: the composer cannot be accused of stacking the odds against him. But it is ineffectual, as is any other effort, against the overwhelming passion of the central lovers.
The opera starts with the god of love asserting he will dominate the goddesses of virtue and fortune, but in fact only Nerone's love triumphs; Ottone's fails, for example. So while love is important, power is shown to be at least as important, though part of this work's own enduring power arises from the way love and power are not contrasted, but linked.
Setting this masterpiece in Stalin’s Russia works extremely well, though it seems to have encouraged director James Conway to excessively telegraph the eventual brutal fate of Poppea, caused by her lover’s rage.
It’s understandable: Stalin has always seemed more brute than libertine, regardless of his early poetic pretensions. Throughout it is clear that Poppea’s power hungriness blinds her to Nerone’s dangerously idealised and self-centred form of love; during the ravishing final duet she finally seems to understand, too late.
I felt this was a mistake, undermining the music which makes it clear these two genuinely love each other, at least for now. But it's an illuminating mistake, not seriously harmful.
I also regretted the cutting of the 'low' comedy, but perhaps I would have found a full performance more trying, so the losses are not grievous.
Monteverdi benefits from being given in English: his flexible recitative, into which almost the entire work is cast, is much harder to appreciate in surtitles. This version by Anne Ridler, amended by Conway, seemed to fit the music perfectly and convey the composer's word setting.
Paula Sides is a sexy Poppea, even in a terrible blond wig (why was that?) and Helen Sherman was a terrifying Nerone. Importantly their voices blended well in the final duet.
The standout performance though was Piotr Lempa's grave and dignified Seneca, in a role that can easily become parody (the music perhaps facilitates this). It is vital that Seneca's death be genuinely tragic, as here is a sane man who is willing to stand up even to Nerone, despite his fear. Yet in the end, he accepts death rather than struggle to overthrow evil, and this resignation permits evil to triumph.
The Britten theatre at the Royal College of Music is ideally sized for this work, and the orchestra produced a full sound despite being often reduced to one or two instruments.