Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: The Coronation of Poppea; la Traviata

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: The Coronation of Poppea; la Traviata

Article excerpt

The Coronation of Poppea

Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, until 30 October, then touring

La traviata

Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, in rep, and touring, until 26 February 2015

Virtue, hide thyself! The Coronation of Poppea opens with a warning and closes with a love duet for a concubine and a psychopath, their union celebrated in sinuous melismas over a blameless passacaglia. First performed in 1643, Monteverdi's final opera is all about talking dirty and talking tough. Seductions, threats, boasts and betrayals are snapped, spat, stuttered and smooched over harmonies that pinch and squeeze like a premium-rate sex-line. Does it work in English? Yes and no. There are casualties in Tim Albery's slick, vicious Opera North production, some historical, some poetic, some musical. In Laurence Cummings's hybrid edition, drawn from the Venice and Naples scores, transpositions and cuts proliferate. Yet the emperor's lust for Poppea is palpable to a degree rarely felt in the opera house. This is just as well, for Monteverdi's toxic hero and heroine not only show us their lovemaking but review it for us, detailing the kisses and caresses of the previous night with shameless, self-congratulatory pleasure.

Virtù, Fortuna and Amore wear modern dress, the first a dowdy academic (Claire Pascoe), the second an executive in hooker heels (Ciara Hendrick), the third a flint-eyed teenage boy in high-tops and snapback hat (the brilliant Emilie Renard). Nero (James Laing) and his entourage saunter about in 1960s tailoring, madmen dressed after Mad Men . There are tweeds for Seneca (James Creswell), shoulder holsters for the hitmen Lucano and Liberto (Nicholas Sharratt and Daniel Norman), and a chiffon dressing-gown trimmed with fur for Sandra Piques Eddy's magnetic Poppea. The pit is empty. Two violins, a lirone and a harpsichord sit to one side of the stage; two theorbos, a harp and a second harpsichord on the other. Led from the keyboard, Cummings's orchestration is organic, with the only distinct match of particular instruments to a particular voice -- a honeyed brew of lirone, lutes and harp -- reserved for Poppea. The tiled walls of Hannah Clark's set reflect the sound. Co-ordination is achieved on the breath and with the ears. It follows that the degree of eye-contact between the singers is exemplary, as is their physical freedom.

Piques Eddy dominates, a compelling and seductive actress and singer. Half of the fascination we have with Poppea's ascent to the throne is in seeing her reaction as her insinuations are translated into death sentences. …

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