Magazine article The Spectator

Imperial Sleaze

Magazine article The Spectator

Imperial Sleaze

Article excerpt

L'Incoronazione di Poppea; La Clemenza di Tito

(Welsh National Opera, Shaftesbury Theatre)

For their visit to London, Welsh National Opera brought two very different works dealing with imperial Rome, Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, his last, and Monteverdi's last too, which might well have been called 'L'Inclemenza di Nerone' but of course is actually L'Incoronazione di Poppea.

WNO's musical performance of it is in most respects a triumph, while the production is extraordinarily irritating. I passed David Alden, the producer, as I squeezed my way into the Shaftesbury Theatre, and heard him saying to his companion, `I've done the full Monte on this one.' Whatever he meant by that, he has certainly removed crucial aspects of the drama, in fact altered its whole ambience.

He presents it, except for odd scenes, such as the Prologue between two goddesses and Amor, and the coronation of Poppea itself, as an office sitcom. Props and scenery consist of a fold-out leatherette sofa, a desk and a filing cabinet. Ottavia, his `regina disprezzata', is sung grandly by Sally Burgess, but she is dressed as an alarming career woman, in a tight suit, until her final scene, in a simple dress. She hangs around, unnoticed, at the centre of the coronation. Drusilla is a tense, bossy secretary, which works quite well, making her even more annoying than she usually is. The part is well taken by Linda Kitchen. Seneca, sung monotonously but sonorously by Gwynne Howell, is the elderly office bore, dispensing his platitudes in a way that makes one sympathise with Nerone. His death scene, which should surely be one of the grandest and most moving in opera, is a send-up. His 'students' are three idiotic Chris Evans lookalikes, who copy down his every word. Their poignant celebration of life's pleasures is thrown away in campy squeals and capers, and Seneca's departure to cut his wrists is wholly unaffecting. Even if the rest of the production worked, this would be unforgivable in its wilful trivialisation.

A heavy atmosphere of sensuality and ruthlessness is a minimum requirement for Poppea. The eponymous 'heroine' is a mixture of genuine lust and ambition, but the ambition is specifically to be Empress, something which occasionally gets on even Nerone's nerves. Catrin Wyn Davies, though she makes with her bottom over the edge of the sofa a good deal, is not particularly sexy, and especially doesn't have a sexy voice, and is really just the office vamp, another stereotype in an opera full of delicately realised individuals. …

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