thu 18/08/2022

The Coronation of Poppea, King's Head Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Coronation of Poppea, King's Head Theatre

The Coronation of Poppea, King's Head Theatre

Mark Ravenhill directs surprisingly good jazzed-up Monteverdi in a pub

When OperaUpClose's bar-side production of La bohème beat the ENO and Royal Opera House to the Olivier Awards' Best New Production gong earlier this year, it was hard - even in these award-sceptical parts - not to delight in the David versus Goliath-like nature of the victory. State funds and high-profile support has since beefed up this fragile dinghy of a venture. One new fan, Mark Ravenhill, was invited to direct Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea. Another, Michael Nyman, was asked to write an intervention aria. Could these artistic stars halt a recent spate of post-bohème production missteps?

Yes and no. Our sweaty, cramped night in the King's Head Theatre studio was a success. But a qualified one. It isn't a giant leap from Baroque figured bass to jazz. Yet to recompose an entire 17th-century opera in a jazz idiom as convincingly as Alex Silverman did with Monteverdi's Poppea showed incredible skill. Some ropey playing notwithstanding, I never once lost faith in the plausibility of his musical language. The music wafting up from the tiny jazz trio (piano, sax, double bass) tucked away in the corner of this studio space at the King's Head Theatre in Islington was doing a Shere Khan. "Trust in me!" it hissed seductively. And I did. Even when I couldn't quite trust much else that was going on.

The story of Nero and his mistress Poppea and their attempt to escape the philosophical and knife-wielding clutches of their court enemies (their wife, Ottavia, husband, Ottone, and court brain, Seneca) is (typically of this period) a wonderful mess of genres. We travel from Sophocles to Dynasty to Up Pompeii and back in a few hours. Weirdly for such a clever director, Ravenhill seemed slightly overwhelmed by the changes of dramatic voice. It wasn't clear where we were in this vague modern updating (the set looked like a five-minute jobbie at Argos) or how anyone related to anyone else.

There were some notable ensemble set pieces. An extraordinarily sexy scene between the two young sopranos Jessica Walker (Nero) and Zoe Bonner (Poppea) in the first act, for example. Ravenhill has them withhold their first proper kiss until the final blackout, though the sensuality of the music and the silken quality of their young voices throughout suggested so much more. And there were strong individual vocal performances from Adam Kowalczyk's pensive Liberto (though shame about the intonation) and Martin Nelson's phlegmatic Seneca. The dramatic high jinks of the second act, however, required much sturdier directorial intervention. Without which things descended into inconsequential silliness until Michael Nyman's 11th-hour resuscitation.
Just before the final duet, a vanquished Ottavia (the impassioned Rebecca Caine) steps forth and, in soaring voice, prophesies the ugly future of the victorious couple, Nero and Poppea. In a matter of days, Nero will batter his new wife and their baby to death, she foretells. Nyman's virtuosic tapestry of plangent sound coiled around hauntingly simple words was an arrow to the heart and mind. The insertion of the aria corrects the immorality of the work, in which (still quite shockingly) we see vice winning out over virtue. With their future foretold, Nero and Poppea's closing duet becomes not some odd moment of unabsorbable rapture from two deeply unsympathetic characters but a powerfully tormented and tormenting moment of self-realisation - a desperate pact of the psychologically damaged.
So the evening was a success, though very much in spite of the opera company's aims. There was nothing to be gained (and a lot of sweat to be lost) from the intimacy afforded a cramped studio setting. Necessity didn't become the mother of invention from the lack of funds thrown at the set. And they must stop selling themselves as the opera company to which all the hip young trendies go, when the visual evidence suggests otherwise. But the music was in good hands. As were the lead vocal roles. And, above all else, this tiny little company resolved one of the great operatic problems of the past 300 years. And for that the production deserves a visit.
  • OperaUpClose's The Coronation of Poppea will be performed on various dates at London's Little Opera House at the King's Head Theatre in Islington until 19 May

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