Composer: Claudio Monteverdi
Conductor and Director: Marcio da Silva
Marcio da Silva’s production of Monteverdi’s opera L’incoronazione di Poppea is a rich if challenging one. The story itself has been described as one in which virtue is punished and greed rewarded. Certainly it is Amore, of the work’s three allegorical figures, who bests Virtu and Fortuna, and Monteverdi presents the passionate love of Nerone and his mistress Poppea with seductively gorgeous music. So does Love Conquer All? And must we turn a blind eye to Nerone’s ruthless treatment of his wife Ottavia and anyone else who stands in his way?
Ensemble OrQuesta’s sizzling production for the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola strongly brings out the ambivalent undercurrents of the work. Helen May as Poppea and Julia Portela Piñón as Nerone are wonderful as the lovers. Both have exquisite voices and are utterly convincing in their erotic passion. In a production with a running time close to three hours, however, their final scenes could seem to be repetitive. On the other hand, da Silva uses them to suggest Nerone’s dangerous nature. The historical Nero is supposed to have had Poppea murdered and there is a chilling moment of violence here as Nerone aggressively seizes Poppea’s throat during their love-making.
Most of the other characters are also in thrall to love or lust. For Ottavia, Nerone’s spurned wife, love has curdled into vicious hatred. Hazel Neighbour in slinky evening dress is clearly a dangerous woman, but so, we suspect, would Poppea be if the tables turned. Similarly Ottone, who suffers unrequited love for Poppea, contemplates killing her in peevish disappointment. The body language of countertenor Eric Schlossberg in the part is perhaps a little too craven here. His best scene is the one in which turns his affections to the besotted Drusilla (Poppy Shotts). He may sing of faithful love but he just can’t look her in the face. Drusilla herself adores him, but her love doesn’t stop singing with unnerving triumphalism of the death of Seneca.
The only principled character is Seneca, Nerone’s former tutor. His adherence to reason contrasts with the unlicenced indulgence of the others, his death unleashing the fullest expression of their depravity. Bass baritone Georghe Palcu plays the role of the philosopher contemplating his end with great dignity, his voice particularly suited the his aria about the joys of solitude.
Ensemble OrQuesta’s small band of musicians play with terrific verve and energy, shifting effortlessy from the extremes of poignant melancholy to the wildly bacchanalian. Paul Jenkins on recorder is lively throughout and Edmund Taylor’s zestful violin playing is mesmerising. It is only a shame that the band is tucked away in a corner of this tiny theatre so not all the instrumentalists are visible to the audience.
Key to the power of this production is da Silva’s imaginative vision and his dynamism as director and conductor. He has mined the work for its darker subtext, boldly presenting its homoerotic possibilities in the duet between Nerone and Lucano. Similarly he draws out the potential comedy of the elderly servant Arnalta – both roles captivatingly performed by Kieran White – bringing a welcome lightening to a long work of almost unbearable intensity.
Runs until 30 July 2022