Monday, 11 April 2011

The Coronation Of Poppea, King's Head Theatre

With this new production of The Coronation Of Poppea, OperaUpClose have rediscovered their mojo. All the inventive intent sidetracked by the success of Boheme has once again found the right vehicle. It's really pleasing to know that the Spreadbury-Maher/Norton-Hale enthusiasm for opera wasn't just because of an idea for the one work.

Part of this reinvigoration comes with a fresh team. Mark Ravenhill directs the production based on his own adaptation of the libretto which, some early sabre-rattling apart, is not simply a showcase for flush-busting profanity. Indeed, Ravenhill introduced the evening with quotes from Seneca and Ru Paul, the latter's 'You're born naked - the rest is just drag' reflecting the benign, postmodern decadence of this intriguing production. Those expecting some sort of "scandalous" Calligulean orgy-opera can be assured it's more thoughtful than that.

The real subversion, the soul-twin of the Boheme's vernacular translation, comes with the music. Writing for a jazz trio (with Jonny Gee on bass and Chez Taylor on saxophones) pianist Alex Silverman realises Monteverdi's score as if it's a sequence of overlapping standards from the Real Book. Jazz extemporisation of baroque music isn't exactly new - Jacques Loussier and The Swingle Singers have been doing it to Bach for years - but there's something about this arrangement that keeps the music within Monteverdi's bounds, serving the drama, keeping the text pertinent. Monteverdi's suspensions, tart twists of musica ficta and strange harmonic visions find new life in the added chords, bitonality and blue notes of Silverman's re-working. Here's their production trailer:

As Ravenhill and Silverman suggest, the cabaret scale and style of the music is just right for the Opera Up Close project. Moreover, Monteverdi's idea of opera, which places the responsibility on the voices to tell the story, create the drama and all the while seduce the ear is the natural territory of the company. There is some really super singing in this production. Rebecca Caine's cuckolded Ottavia is the exemplar, allowing her voice free reign without having to battle music that's pushing to fill a far bigger space. This is proper operatic singing, projected and communicative, always beautiful and character-assimilated.

The inevitable operatic chicanery of love kindled, love thwarted and vengeance plotted is played out by two couples. As Ottone David Sheppard's nimble countertenor comes into its own in the hysteria of a murderer's troubled conscience. Jassy Husk is his bittersweet lover Drusilla and the two make a convincing pair, cornered by circumstance. More strident in tone and stage presence, Jessica Walker's Nero is what you'd expect a borderline maniac despot to be, playing the trouser role complete with a jazzdrogynous Stacey Kent crop.

Zoë Bonner as Poppea (
As for the eponymous Poppea, well OperaUpClose have a brilliant advocate for this hybrid version of the opera in Zoë Bonner. Showing no technical hiatus between realising Monteverdi's exploratory baroque blueprint and incorporating twentieth century jazz inflection she makes the mongrel idiom appear organic. Melismas uncoil in the same way in which she slinks around the stage and microtonal cadences are treated with a club singer's artful nonchalance.

Proving there's not a weak link in the cast, Martin Nelson's Seneca is a fine study in noble equanimity. The authenticity of his connection was evinced when an audience member stifled a shriek as he takes his own life. Finally, Adam Kowalczyk dealt with some early tuning issues and sniggering at his appearance in drag to perform Liberto's lullaby of beautifully quiet, sustained lines that had even Silverman beaming with joy at the piano. For me this single aria validated not only the jazz arrangement but also the UpClose project, a precious moment.

Delivery aside, the drama of Poppea is problematic. The immoral couple at its centre finish the opera not with comeuppance but its most touching, loving duet. Ravenhill attempts two things to address this. The first is the pool in the centre of the stage: turned red with the blood of Seneca's suicide, each character eventually succumbs to wading into it, marking themselves with a communal stain of moral weakness or complicity. Neither Nero nor Poppea are exempt, symbolically completing the coronation in the pool.

Ravenhill's second and most radical idea is the commissioning and interpolation of a new aria from Michael Nyman. Ottavia sings from an inverted-lit exile, predicting the couple's violent future. It's a bold move. Nyman's music is good, integrated but alien. The peculiarly immoral denouement seems to need a counterweight. Nonetheless I felt cheated. In Monteverdi's world the sensory provides its own moral absolutes and I had been captivated by this point. But then, perhaps I didn't want to hear the message any more than I wanted any interruption, in the same way that Nero doesn't want to hear Seneca's sage words on the pitfalls of a ruler eschewing reason.

In short, by the end I was enjoying myself to the point where I didn't want to let failing to understand the show get in the way of enjoying it. I'm sure that's one reasonable basis for calling an evening a success. In fact, being told that some material was being held back during this preview performance might just prove to be the incentive to return.

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