Baroque Opera from Venice: Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, Handel's Agrippina, and Cavalli's Jason

By Munns, Jessica | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Baroque Opera from Venice: Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, Handel's Agrippina, and Cavalli's Jason


Munns, Jessica, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


Baroque Opera from Venice: Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, Handel's Agrippina, and Cavalli's Jason

Review of Claudio Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, conducted by Michael Rosewell, directed by James Conway; George Frideric Handel's Agrippina, conducted by Jonathan Peter Kenny, directed by James Conway; and Francesco Cavalli's Jason, conducted by Joseph McHardy, directed by Ted Huffman. English Touring Opera, Malvern Theatres, Worcestershire, October 24-26, 2013.

This season the English Touring Opera (ETO) supported by the early instruments orchestra, the Old Street Band, has selected to perform three operas first performed during the Venice Carnival season from the mid seventeenth to the early eighteenth centuries. These are Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice during the 1643 Carnival season; Cavalli's Jason, performed at the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1649; and Handel's Agrippina, performed at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in 1709. Although the ETO performed all three operas in English, helpful screen prompts also gave either the words or the gist of the action.

Venetian operas of this period were often cut and pasted together with popular arias or successful duets moved from opera to opera. Vocal and instrumental improvised elaborations were often added, the orchestration and instrumentation is frequently ambiguous, and even whether roles were taken by castrati or female singers is either unknown or variable. The operas were almost always full of contemporary political references, now lost on a modern audience. These considerations have given modern directors a free hand in their staging, most notably in David McVicar's 2005 Glyndebourne production of Handel's Giulio Cesare with Danielle de Niese as a memorable singing and dancing Bollywood Cleopatra. However, shock tactic staging and updating need to be handled with tact and this process has not been entirely successfully undertaken by the ETO.

The ETO's revival of Coronation of Poppea, probably the best known and most frequently performed of the trio, was conducted by Michael Rosewell and directed by James Conway (who also adapted the translation by Anne Ridler). Conway set the performance in Revolutionary Russia with mezzosoprano Helen Sherman as grimly self-obsessed Nero/Stalin and soprano Paula Sides as a "Baby-Doll" clad Poppea complete with over-sized teddy bear. A split-level set emphasized the sense of a surveillance society with spies lurking above and around the action. This was a musically superb, powerful, and grim production, with little by way of visual pleasure-except for the scantly clad Poppea. Drab uniforms, ill-fitting suits, and limp dresses created a world of scarcity. The final love duet between Nero and Poppea is watched from above by Seneca (bass Piotr Lempa), Ottavia (mezzo-soprano Hannah Pedley), Ottone (countertenor Michal Czerniawski), and Drusilla (soprano Hannah Sandison). If these characters are not yet dead (and Seneca definitely is) the implication is they soon will be. The grim Soviet setting and costumes are there, doubtless, to remind one that tyranny, cruelty, and murder are not unique to the Roman or Renaissance eras, but then alas, whoever thought they were? Equally, tyrannies take different forms and faces. Totalitarian tyrannies today are substantially different in range and consequences from the personal forms of tyranny practiced by ruling families in Rome or during the Renaissance which is the topic and setting of Coronation. There is no obvious gain, except perhaps that of surprise, in shifting the setting of this opera to Stalinist Russia.

Jason, directed by Ted Huffman, also sung and orchestrated beautifully, suffered from similar "concept" driven staging. It was set for the first act in what looked like a rather run-down 1930s hotel graced by a staircase which swayed alarmingly when the singers ascended or descended it. The role of Jason was taken by countertenor Clint Van der Linde, and Medea was performed by mezzo-soprano Hannah Pedley. …

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