I cannot say that I am a frequent presence at the opera, but I still found English Touring Opera’s adaptation of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea immensely enjoyable. Performed at the Royal College of Music, this is the first stop of a touring show that will span most of the South of England. The Coronation of Poppea is a seventeenth century Venetian opera, a city then famous for its growing economical strength and trade, but coupled with a booming market prostitution and the trappings of a hedonistic lifestyle. This opera is the perfect reflection of this, with the protagonist Poppea as a beautiful, and youthful temptress. Poppea’s ability to break men’s hearts is both an asset and a vice. She can manipulate men of power with a turn of her head, but the tragedy of this lies in the fact that she is therefore also constantly objectified and fantasised about, and is never able to interact with men without being desired.
The delivery of the vocal score is rich and fun, and all of the singers perform with a sense of energy and chemistry, as well as allowing the audience a sly wink now and again to remind us that this is only fiction. Paula Sides’s Poppea displays her enormous appetite for sexual pleasure with relish, parading herself around the bedroom in bright red lipstick and a platinum blonde wig; only revealing her brunette locks to Nerone (played by Helen Sherman in drag), her true lover. She commands the affections of the male characters and the audience with relish, seizing the centre of the stage with her beauty, mystery and soaring vocals.
The set, consisting of a scaffold and drapes by designer Samuel Blak hints toward the ‘golden dawn’ Stalinist aesthetic, reflective of the power that all the men in the play have to lose if they are to be brought down by the wiles of Poppea. The geometry of the set creates a frame around the audience’s perception of Poppea. In the centre of the scaffolding are two rotatable flats that create Poppea’s bedroom walls. Her bed is backlit, creating a silhouette of her languishing figure – a vision of the male fantasies that are projected onto her, in a world where the distinction between love and lust is fine and the sexual ownership of Poppea is vied for like currency.
With such a gift of a score, I felt that the danger of this show was for the singers to become bogged down in the delivery of the songs, and fail to include rapport with the audience and create creative licence with the characters. However, the cast of this opera achieve this, particularly in the symbolic figure of the narrator Amor (played by Jake Arditti), who has a particular talent in charming the audience with his smiles and asides.
A few technical faults were a let-down in an otherwise smooth production. The subtitled screens are an effective explanation of what’s being sung, but are temperamental and disruptive as they flick onto ‘screensaver’ mode half way through the final act, a huge distraction from the audience’s emotional engagement in the piece’s climax. If this is your first time to the opera, it is absolutely worth going to see. The great thing is that if you can’t get to see in in London, it’ll probably soon be coming to a venue near you.
The Coronation of Poppea is at the Britten Theatre in The Royal College of Music until 9 October, before embarking upon a national tour. For more information and tickets, see the English Touring Opera’s Website. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.