Coronation of Poppea

The Kings Head Theatre, Islington, 19 May 2011

The Coronation of Poppea is on as part of the OperaUpClose repertory programme until the end of June

The startling success of OperaUpclose’s debut production, a modern-day, stripped-down promenade La Boheme, is the kind of story that semi-professional companies usually can only dream of. Six-months at the Cock Theatre in Kilburn put it in the record books as the longest consecutive run of any opera in history, and this was followed up by two six-week sold-out runs at the Soho Theatre. However this kind of instant success brings with it a level of critical scrutiny that might concern even the most long-established groups. Any new production is likely to be picked apart to see if it was a one-off, particularly among opera critics who have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to please.

Establishing a repertory programme at the Kings Head Theatre in Islington made clear that there was an enthusiasm to build on the popularity of La Boheme and bring opera to the masses (the well-heeled masses of Islington at any rate). A seasonal programme that mixed classics like Madame Butterfly and Barber of Seville with less well-known work such as Montiverdi’s Coronation of Poppea suggested a company that were savvy enough to know what would appeal to both mass audeinces and critics.

However early signs weren’t good as rumours about the exploitation of backing singers seeped through the press and a version of Madame Butterfly felt a big misstep; disjointed, badly staged and unsuited to the venue, it raised a big question-mark over whether La Boheme was anything more than an amusing one-off. A big problem with Madame Butterfly was due to the limitations of the Kings Head and the needs of repertory programming requiring much simpler settings meant the production lacked the basics that made La Boheme such an appealing prospect; promenade staging and a fantastically realistic set.

Knowing that these would not have been resolved for Coronation of Poppea meant the production was approached in trepidation. However, in a huge coup for OperaUpClose, Mark Ravenhill has been brought on board as an Associate Director of the company. The Coronation of Poppea marks his directorial debut and from the start it was clear that there was someone with experience working behind the scenes.

This was evident both in the staging and in the performances of the actors. In Madame Butterfly there was very little dynamism and it felt staged like a traditional opera, with static actors delivering their lines before moving. Whilst this may work at the Royal Opera House, in such an intimate setting it generally felt lifeless and dull. In contrast there was a fluidity running through The Coronation of Poppea , with actors working hard to bring life to what, by necessity, is a very basic stage.

The production is incredibly sensual; the adulterous lust of Poppea and Nero hangs thickly in the air and, with the audience almost spilling on the stage, we are forced into a complicity in their affair. Their opening scene is filled with an erotic energy and the actors clearly feel comfortable in each other’s presence. The audience is made to feel like voyeurs and this is conveyed in the eyes of a solitary guard who has to bear witness to it. It is a strong scene and kickstart’s the opera with an energy that manages to drag it through sections in the first half where it might otherwise start to drag. Much happens at the corner of the scenes, unannounced but unavoidable; during Seneca’s suicide you become aware of Nero and Poppea watching silently with growing lust, Nero’s hand firmly clasping Poppea’s breast. The audience is not signposted to it and it is not part of the scene but none-the-less it is unmissable and serves to remind you that this couple are capable of great cruelty. Small little moments like this recur sporadically throughout the production and an act as a constant reminder that a world-class director is at work.

The score is excellent, rewriting an opera for a jazz trio of piano, double bass and saxophone shouldn’t work but it provides a slightly louche sound that works in harmony with the themes. It also fits appropriately with the setting and costumes, managing to convey the decadent lifestyles of the continental jet-set with little more than a pair of aviators and a sun-lounger. The libretto is also strong; providing an appropriately updated translation, and there is clarity in the singing across the cast with dialogue sung crisply and clearly. Standout performances from Ottone and Drusilla in the supporting roles helped to underpin Nero and Poppea’s sensuous performances and Octavia, as Nero’s wronged wife, brought the requisite level of injured dignity that seems to be the default setting of all Roman noblewomen.

It is not a production without its difficulties and surprisingly, given Mark Ravenhill’s experience, some of the blame must be laid at the door of the director. Pub theatres are difficult to direct in because the stage is rarely raised and so sightlines can be an issue but the challenge is to work around it. However for a number of key scenes, including Seneca’s suicide which is the climax of the first half, it was very difficult for a large proportion of the audience to get an unobstructed view of the action because it was staged at ground level. This meant that it was difficult to get an unobstructed view of the action and coupled with a swelteringly hot venue the audience often seemed restless and unable to let themselves be fully drawn in to the action.

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