Magazine article The Spectator

How Comic Is It?

Magazine article The Spectator

How Comic Is It?

Article excerpt

L'Incoronazione di Poppea Royal College of Music Carmen Royal Opera House

Monteverdi's last opera, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, is an excellent choice for one of the music colleges to put on, containing as it does a fairly large number of characters, none of them with extremely demanding parts, though they all need to be as good actors as they are singers. The RCM's cast that I saw, the first, but in its second performance, was mainly as impressive as I have come to expect. What was startling, though, was the hideously out-of-tune playing of the orchestra in the introduction, the cornets especially.

Fortunately when the action began the playing improved, though there was less certainty in the performance, under the experienced Michael Rosewell, than usual.

But the production of Paul Curran raised a fundamental question about the work: how comic is it? There is no question that it contains comic episodes and comic characters, but I have always taken it to be in the main, and primarily, a study of the omnipotence of lust, which is no laughing matter.

Here the goddesses, Fortune, Virtue and Love, gorgeously robed, were sent sky-high, but not in quite the sense the ancients might have recognised. Then down to earth with a bump, the two sentries, Life Guards on duty outside Buck House, one of them taking a pee against the wall -- cue for much audience mirth, naturally. The losers, Poppea's betrothed Ottone, even the spurned empress Ottavia, were made to seem almost wholly foolish, though Ottavia's music is so grand that that can't be sustained, so she was turned into a merely annoying shrew.

Arnalta the nurse was a brilliant performance from Alistair Digges in imposing drag.

But Seneca, the pivotal moral figure in the drama, in that he is simultaneously wise and tedious, was the too-young Kostas Smoriginas, lacking all the lower notes which give him weight and dignity; and the heart-breaking passage in which his familiars implore him not to kill himself ('Non morir, Seneca, no!') was dispatched casually.

The central villainous, appalling and triumphant pair began nude, under a red counterpane, with Nero hastily slipping on his boxers, Poppea taking much more time to get anything on, and vouchsafing us several tantalising glimpses. This is the role that Pumeza Matshikiza was destined to play, and she made the most of it; one hardly believed that she would put so much erotic effort into becoming the consort of Huw Llywelyn, evidently no subscriber to Men's Health. So Poppea tended to seem simply ambitious, faking ardour, whereas so much of this masterwork explores the mixed motives which drive these characters, above all the heroine. …

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