Perish the thought, but I must have a horribly suspicious mind to suggest that the scale of forces required for early opera is behind Opera North‘s choice of this particular piece as a main house production; in these cash-strapped times, an economic driver as much as an artistic aspiration.
Contemporary realisations of the operas of Monteverdi are in no small part thanks to the advocacy of an esteemed scholar – the conductor Raymond Leppard – whose performing editions re-awakened interest in these neglected works. Three operas La favola d’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and Poppea – Monteverdi’s largest and grandest work – have been handed down more or less complete; in the case of Poppea – less rather than more.
No original manuscript of the score has ever been discovered; the two surviving scores from the 1650s show substantial differences from each other, and each differs to some extent from Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s libretto. We cannot even be certain how much of the music is actually by Monteverdi.
The scale and make-up of instrumental and vocal forces originally deployed is also subject to speculation. A surviving score for L’incoronazione di Poppea features an astonishing 28 singing characters, including seven ensemble parts of which the two servant lovers may only have appeared in the 1651 Naples production. The original Venetian performances are thought to have made use of extensive role-doubling, thus allowing the opera to be staged with no more than eleven singers: two female sopranos, three castrati, two tenors and two basses. Raymond Leppard’s “Respighi-isation”, first staged at Glyndebourne in 1962 with Magda Laszlo as Poppea and at ENO in 1971 with Janet Baker, made use of a medium-sized orchestra of modern instruments. Leppard also transposed castrato roles downwards and compressed the three acts into just two.
Opera North’s new performing version by Tim Albery and Laurence Cummings – the witty English translation is also the work of Albery – is inevitably a hybrid, falling somewhere between Monteverdi’s lengthy original and Leppard’s abridged version with a running time of almost three hours. The first two acts occupied 90 minutes which, to be quite honest, seemed over-long and I overheard comments to this effect. There are thirteen named roles and each, with one exception, is assigned to one singer; three more singers take the roles of Seneca’s students.
Albery’s late 20th Century setting places the action in designer Hannah Clark‘s uncompromising underground chamber surrounded by a dingy white-tiled wall and entered by a large metallic sliding door. This is Nerone’s nerve centre – a claustrophobic room of secrets, sex, intrigue and murder. The stage is sparsely furnished, save for moveable long tables and small wooden chairs moved around by the cast. The scoring for this version entails eight instrumentalists who are placed in two groups of four just behind the proscenium arch at either side of the stage. Menacing black designer suits for the men and chic outfits for the women are de rigueur except for James Creswell‘s Seneca, a harmless old gent dressed in country-style jacket and trousers. Emilie Renard as Amore is an exuberant youth in sports clothes with a baseball cap and sneakers.
Albery doesn’t completely resist the temptation to sensationalise this amoral and violent story. He creates the murders of Drusilla, Ottone, and Ottavia (Nerone’s discarded wife), just when you think the magnanimous Emperor has reprieved the trio. In an admittedly delicious example of directorial excess, Nerone repeatedly stabs the Roman Empress and then calmly empties a large jug of tomato ketchup over her impeccably coiffured head.
Mezzo Sandra Piques Eddy‘s embodiment of Poppea as a beautiful and sophisticated siren shows that this opera is as much about sexual lust as it is about ambition. The tall and shapely Piques Eddy looks wonderful; dressed to kill in a full-length gown, she walks along a line of tables like a catwalk model. Countertenor James Laing as Nerone exudes an air of danger and for very good reasons. Laing presents an athletic and volatile figure as the Emperor who will stop at absolutely nothing – including murder – to maintain his grip on power. Laing’s icy cold timbre and Piques Eddy’s sensuous dark chocolate tones are well matched in their duets “Signor, deh, non partire!” and the final blissfully sung “Pur ti miro”. The latter is delivered as the couple are locked in a passionate and writhing embrace atop a table.
Mezzo Catherine Hopper as the spurned empress Ottavia displays vocal agility and rich tone colour in her brief Act l “Disprezzata regina” and Ottavia’s grief-stricken “Addio Roma”. Soprano Katherine Manley as Drusilla was splendid in her “O felice Drusilla”. Manley, Hopper and countertenor Christopher Ainslie as Ottone blend smoothly in their recitatives. Ottone’s amusing cross-dressing disguise as he attempts to murder Poppea, but is thwarted by Amore, provided some much needed comic relief.
Ciara Hendrick neatly doubles as Fortuna and Ottavia’s page, Claire Pasco in black executive suit is a formidable Virtù. Daniel Norman and Nicholas Sharratt are powerful guards to Nerone, even if they do stand around like nightclub bouncers. The handpicked cast is, as I have indicated, carefully matched but I longed to hear some more “meaty” voices. The fine American bass James Creswell duly delivers the desired meaty quality as the avuncular Seneca but he is commanded by Nerone to commit suicide and is sadly killed off before the interval. Opera North veteran, Fiona Kimm as Poppea’s aged fusspot nurse creates a riveting character study; Kimm’s rich mezzo tones have matured like fine wine. The diction and articulation of every member of the cast is excellent and since there are no distracting surtitles we can focus on every vocal and physical nuance.
The lush Leppard orchestration has long since fallen from grace; musicality has given way to musicology. Laurence Cummings’ much leaner instrumentation (albeit closer to Monteverdi’s original) consists of two violins, two theorbos, two harpsichords and one each of harp, gamba, and lirone. These are divided into two groups as mentioned earlier; Cummings directs the performance from one of the harpsichords. Textures are pellucid, if erring towards dryness, given that a proportion of the sound floats directly upwards to the fly tower. The resonance of the orchestra pit would have added gloss and weight of tone. This ensemble plays with forensic precision but, for me at least, there is as much tonal variety and shading of dynamics as from a well-oiled Singer sewing machine. In my humble opinion the accompaniment is too fragile for a 1,500 seater auditorium like Leeds Grand Theatre.
Reservations aside though, Albery and Cummings’ realisation of Poppea still has much to commend it. The production continues in repertoire with La traviata and The Bartered Bride until 30th October at Leeds Grand. It then tours to Newcastle Theatre Royal, Salford Lowry Theatre, and Nottingham Theatre Royal.
Photos: Tristram Kenton