The first of four complete operas to feature in this summer's Proms season, Robert Carsen's innovative production of The Coronation of Poppaea – first performed earlier this summer at Glyndebourne – was greeted with a full house and soaring temperatures.
Indeed, these soaring temperatures were present too onstage, with writhing and anguished passion set as the prevailing mood of this semi-staged performance given in Italian.
Effusive and vivacious as ever, Emmanuelle Haim bounced onto the stage. She had a lively presence at the helm of the ensemble she led – on this occasion, the intuitive and precise Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Clever direction of the prologue's start sees Fortune and Virtue begin from the front row of the Prommers. As Fortune (Sonya Yoncheva) emerged from the crowd, I wondered how I hadn't spotted her before, clad in a blindingly-sparkly gold ball gown. Hugely contrasting glamorous Fortune, sombre Virtue (Simona Mihai) in a nun's habit and Cupid (Amy Freston) a little later in a red velvet three-piece suit really made for an enticing opening to the evening's advents. Red haze lighting, cast by Cupid and during the coronation added a subtle but effective atmospheric change.
Iestyn Davies (Otho) entered with his usual delightfully warm and luscious tone. He - more so than the prologue singers at least - achieved clear vocal projection, reaching right to the back of the hall. Even when he emerged later on, looking frankly ridiculous in a sparkly floor-length number, he still managed to sustain an anguished and engrossing performance.
Alice Coote was much the convincing man on stage as the arrogant Nero, especially in the early intensely passionate bedroom scenes between Nero and Poppaea (Danielle de Niese). Despite her diminutive stature, Coote managed – particularly in Act 1 scene 9 - to still appear an authoritative figure of powerful dominance and male arrogance. The intensity of passion between Nero and Poppaea was immense and utterly palpable, working well to help justify the rash and selfish actions of them both. De Niese's acting skills are worthy of particular note, bringing the role to life.
Haim conducted the OAE emphatically and deliberately, resulting in a clear, concise, bright and energetic sound. The continuo players were flawlessly together and the exact and virtuosic scalic flutters of the recorders sparkled in the interlinking passages. Haim's dark, dramatic outfit, paired with her voluminous, red bushy hair, created a look that wouldn't have been out of place in a Tim Burton film. However, she was an unobtrusive yet commanding force in the performance, tirelessly navigating the orchestra and singers through the myriad of recitatives. Sat at the harpsichord/organ for most of the performance, Haim seemed to draw upon a limitless source of energy, physically leading the tempi with every part of her upper body. Particularly rich and expressive was the OAE leader's performance. Kati Debretzeni side-stepped gently in and out of the limelight of sound, performing effortlessly with exacting accuracy.
The Nurse (Dominique Visse) portrays a character very reminiscent of the Shakespearean nurses – he is essentially just a little ridiculous, and of course therefore also hilarious. His wonderfully amusing interpretation brings life to the libretto and acts as an effective emotional balance to the lamentations of Octavia, with whom the nurse initially shares the stage. Perhaps it is due to my having been a fair distance from the stage, but Visse, too, offered a peculiarly convincing cross-dressed performance. Visse is a joy to watch and a great source of humour and entertainment. A great performance.
Seneca (Paolo Battaglia) offered a sombre and mournful performance in his death scene, his rippling bass tones adding much to his wise acceptance of his fate. Cupid's presence and interaction with other characters throughout added much to the performance, emphasising her over-seeing and influence over the several pairs of lovers. The Page (Lucia Cirillo) and Lady-in-Waiting's (Claire Ormshaw) scene was a particular success – well-acted and endearingly portrayed.
The evening was a close reflection of the production at Glyndebourne (rumoured to be released on DVD in the near future), yet with a little more fluidity, due to the semi-staged nature of the performance. Undressing, cross-dressing and luxurious bed scenes prevailed in this production, making it a visually exciting experience. It overflowed with sexual thrills and intrigue, murder passion and despair – theatrical offerings that never fail to grab the attention of audiences of any era.