This year in the August heat and dust of Neapolitan Italy, I made my first visit to Poppea’s villa at Oplontis. Like neighbouring Herculaneum, the villa was preserved in the eruption of 79 A.D. Unlike the modest townhouses in Herculaneum, Oplontis boasts a huge complex of elegant drawing rooms, cool inner courtyards, a huge swimming pool and endless trompe l‘oeil wallpaintings of birds, exotic fruit and mythological characters set against a backdrop of Pompeian red, giving a unique insight into the extravagant lifestyle of the patrician class. Standing alone in the afternoon stillness, with no other sound than the cicadas in the pine trees, it took little imagination to visualise the steamy sexual intrigues perpetrated by this great Roman siren, as portrayed in L’incoronazione di Poppea of 1643, attributed to Monteverdi.

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With its effective semi-staging at the Barbican Centre by Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson, I could believe the Academy of Ancient Music’s production of this extraordinary theatre piece took place at dusk on the steps leading to Poppea’s villa. I am deliberately calling it a piece of theatre because, compared with the noble sentiment of Orfeo which was written in 1607 for the court at Mantua, L’incoronazione di Poppea seems to owe much more to the new Venetian tradition of public theatre, the presentation of drammi per musica in parallel with commedia dell’arte to entertain the masses. L’incoronazione di Poppea is earthy, Roman rather than Christian in sentiment, and portrays human vices in glorious technicolour. On this reading of  the work, directed from the harpsichord by Robert Howarth, I thought I recognised the bawdy humour, sense of dance and strong overtones of buffa (rather than seria) which I associate with Cavalli. Watching Nerone make a fool of himself for the sake of a sexually-proficient social climber, surrounded by mechanicals who engage in Love’s game of chance makes this piece something of an amorality play in which the good people are brought down, the powerful get their own way at all costs and life goes on.

Performance practice has moved on to such a degree since the Harnoncourt recording of some forty years’ ago. Last year’s wonderfully naturalistic rendition by the Academy of Ancient Music of Orfeo showed that 17th century Venetian ornamentation is no longer a stutter, but a subtle nuance, anticipating the cadence. In the days when Leppard et al fleshed out the meagre orchestration in this mish-mash of a stage work, you could cast great opera singers to soar over lush string orchestral sound. Since the opera (which survived in two differing manuscript versions) received The Alan Curtis Treatment, there are no longer issues about what I cruelly call “chamber” or “church” singers battling to be heard over a substantial orchestra. We had five strings, two theorbos, one harp, and three harpsichords. This made for an intimate performance with singers able to move from the risers behind the players to playing out the drama downstage. It also meant nobody had to strain the voice to be heard. Early music singers and true operatic voices happily co-existed, allowing for much more light and shade in the timbre.

The various younger singers in the ensemble also enlivened the performance by bringing some of the ensemble pieces out into the auditorium, which worked well with one exception where a lack of sight line rocked the ensemble momentarily. But being an able operatic performer is not merely an issue of vocal projection. The more successful performers on the night were of course the natural stage animals, able to act with face, body and voice, bringing their characters to vivid life.

The great Sarah Connolly is without question one such stage animal. As well as a charismatic stage presence and an almost unique ability to embody a debonair young man when in character, Ms Connolly has the vocal skills to keep me captivated for hours on end. If she were not so compelling to watch I would want to shut my eyes and lose myself in the sound of that voice. The extraordinary colour palette she brings reminds me of looking at the paintings of Chagall; all life, the full gamut of emotions is present in vivid reds, greens and blues. Her Nerone is another one of her towering characterisations. When we have an artist of this calibre who can imbue such roles with searing masculinity, it does make it hard to argue that opera houses should start casting men again in soprano castrato roles. Ms Connolly’s task would have been even more taxing than her more familiar trouser roles of Serse or Giulio Cesare because Oliver and Nelson unleashed the raw sexuality of L’incoronazione di Poppea, a depiction of how intense passion causes even great men to lose any sense of duty or loyalty. Whilst the grand passion of Nerone’s desire to possess Poppea at all costs, casting aside his noble and dutiful wife Ottavia illustrates the emperor’s greed and selfishness, the soprano playing Poppea needs to embody the sultry sexuality of an Emilia Marty, allied with a cool-headed ability to use men to get what she wants.

Sadly for the audience on Saturday night, the distinguished, pure-voiced soprano Lynne Dawson was miscast as Poppea. Whilst Ms Connolly was totally convincing as a sexually-charged young man, Nerone was asked to stride about in a post-coital glow whilst his Poppea tripped about prettily, reminding me of Dame Judi Dench fantasising she could still play Juliet. There is still some bloom left in the upper part of Ms Dawson’s voice, but she has apparently lost the ability to undertake line and length singing. If you can’t sustain a line, 17th century suspensions lose all their tension. The extraordinary duet “Pur ti muro” which is the culmination of the opera, (after the typical closing “We will all live happily ever after” chorus has finished,) has to pull one against the other, each lover trying to own and possess the other.

In the role of Ottavia, Nerone’s rejected wife, Marina de Liso impressed both vocally and dramatically. It is always interesting to hear an Italian sing in Italian and this distinguished mezzo didn’t disappoint. Sitting in our comfortable seats at the Barbican, one tends to forget that Poppea died after Nerone kicked her pregnant belly. In Italian opera of the 17th and 18th century I don’t want to hear something smooth, pretty and romanticised. Ms de Liso’s performance was by turns dignified and visceral. If I had been Nerone and had to choose between this Ottavia and this Poppea, there would have been no contest.

The third truly operatic voice in the mix came from Matthew Rose as Seneca. I was impressed with him last year in Albert Herring and felt that, as Seneca the party-pooper, who firsts resists Nerone’s plans then strides with dignity to his death, his voice has developed an even greater depth and resonance. Next in the pecking order came Iestyn Davies as Ottone. This character is married to Poppea and in fact briefly became emperor after Nerone’s death. The role is set within a limited range, sitting quite low in the average countertenor tessitura, so not offering any real opportunity to shine. Also, Ottone is characterised as a coward, jealous of Nerone and coming perilously close to allowing his new girlfriend, Drusilla take the rap for his attempt on Poppea’s life. Mr Davies sang with his usual controlled consistent timbre and came alive in his interplay with Sophie Junker, who was an absolute delight as the ingenue of the piece. Ms Junker has a radiant soprano voice, is a former winner of the London Handel Singing Competition and also comes with an engaging stage presence.

Another revelation for me was Andrew Tortise, in drag as Poppea’s nurse or handmaiden. Paradoxically this young tenor has a wonderful vaudeville stage presence which would stand him in good stead as a ‘character tenor,’ but he is able to deliver a high tenor role with such purity and apparent ease that he doesn’t have to forge a career on his acting alone. Vicki St Pierre who took on the role of rival nurse, competing for status with the nurse of the new empress, is a musical polymath from Canada where she conducts and coaches as well as enjoying a thriving career in oratorio and early opera. She brought warmth, clarity and an appealing skittishness to the part.

All the supporting cast were committed to this production and enlivened the performance. Daniela Lehner, who as Amore got the last laugh, and Elmar Gilbertsson get my vote as the sexiest cast members. With Mr Gilbertsson and Ms Connolly rolling about together in erotic poses while singing of the delights of the female form it was hard to understand why they didn’t just get a room and forget those pesky queens altogether.

4 stars

Miranda Jackson

(Photo of Sarah Connolly by Peter Warren)

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