English National Opera has assembled an excellent cast for their production of The Coronation of Poppea. But although some of the singers deliver truly remarkable performances, stage director Chen Shi-Zheng's production of Monteverdi's masterpiece is problematic.
Maybe the director viewed the Coliseum's stage as too large for a Monteverdi opera. (Indeed, in Monteverdi's time opera performances took place in much smaller venues.) As in Orfeo, his earlier production for ENO, Chen Shi-Zheng added a group of dancers apparently to illustrate the mood or - more probably - to fill the stage. But while he still allowed Orfeo's narrative to unfold, this time his dancers - once again the Java-based Orange Blossom Dance Company - were mostly irrelevant and a disturbing distraction from the plot and the music.
Unfortunately, Chen Shi-Zheng seems to have wished to create a theatrical spectacle, regardless of whether it is to the detriment of the dramatic characterisation. We had constant (rather boring) film projections, at times performers suspended in the air - whatever happened to health and safety regulations at the Coliseum! - and various unrecognisable or irrelevant objects rolled in and out.
The drama of the plot was, at times, reduced to vulgar pantomime. It is true that - in order to avoid recognition, while entering Poppea's quarters to murder her - Ottone disguises himself in one of Drusilla's dresses. But Ottone is no cross-dresser, as in this production. And the character of Arnalta - Poppea's down-to-earth, loyal, wise and compassionate nurse - was reduced to a pathetic drag queen. In her final appearance, just before the end of the opera, Arnalta wisely philosophises about the rich and poor in society. Her monologue is humorous, we should be laughing with her. But in this production she (or rather he, as the part is performed by a man) bares her legs in a vulgar sexual gesture and the audience laughs at her, not with her. Even allowing for different artistic views, this interpretation of Arnalta must be viewed as a travesty.
Of the singers - from my perspective - Anna Grevelius (Nerone), Lucy Crowe (Drusilla) and Robert Lloyd (Seneca) delivered outstanding performances both vocally and dramatically. The singing was of a high standard all the way through, but far too often the staging interfered with musical integrity. Kate Royal (Poppea) could hardly portray the seductive sex goddess while all the time restricted to a spot of a square yard (if that) or suspended in the air. Tim Mead (Ottone) and Christopher Gillett (Arnalta) sang beautifully but their dramatic interpretation was compromised by the camp staging. Doreen Curran (Ottavia) was doing her best to illustrate the drama of her excellently sung arias but not only was she restricted to one spot, she was also restricted to one position and not allowed to stand or to walk. During all her appearances she sat on a construction which served variously as her throne, her bed or her carriage.
The authentic continuo section of the orchestra - with three chitarrones, three harpsichords and a great bass viol - was powerful. The three natural trumpets did not fare well: they play only a few seconds but, on this occasion, they played out of tune.
Conductor Laurence Cummings favoured fast speeds all along though he rounded off each number with a slight ritenuto. One wonders whether Cummings' interpretation would have been more relaxed and more inspiring in a different production.
It should be mentioned that, as far as I am aware, we had no coronation. In what was supposed to be the coronation scene, we had all kind of imagery with angels suspended in the air and goddesses as well as mortals singing on stage. But although on conclusion we had a royal procession, this production of The Coronation of Poppea was short of the jubilant coronation.
By Agnes Kory
Photo credit: ENO and Catherine Ashmore
Read our interview with conductor Laurence Cummings about this production here.