Monteverdi was a venerable and celebrated church musician of 75 when he wrote Poppea. It was quite common for church composers to supplement their income by writing secular work for the annual Venice Carnival but one does wonder what audiences made of the triumph of ‘Love’ (though we might think Lustrather than Love) over ‘Virtue’ that is portrayed in this marvellous opera. It was first performed at the carnival of 1643 and Monteverdi died later that year.
Marcio da Silva’s Ensemble OrQuesta has done Poppea before. Indeed, I reviewed a performance at The Cockpit in February 2019 which impressed me very much – with Helen May as a splendid Nero. In this production, which opens another much anticipated Grimeborn season at the Arcola, she sings the title role and is even better as the lascivious and ambitious courtesan – her duets with Julia Portela Pinon as Nero are as close to deserving an 18 rating as any opera staging I have seen. The two of them provide a blend of voices that is well matched to the sometimes complex music and never better than when they sing the final pur ti miroduet.
The story is of Emperor Nero and his efforts to end his marriage to Ottavia so that he could make Poppea his empress. He is presented with a perfect opportunity when an outraged and vengeful Ottavia approaches Poppea’s former lover, Ottone, and urges him to murder the woman who has rejected him. But the plot is discovered and the way is clear for Nero to exile Ottavia and marry the seductive courtesan, though in this production there is a startling twist before the final curtain. In the intimate space of the main studio at the Arcola Theatre, the story is presented with the simplest of stagings – a bed-sized platform covered in red cloth, a single chair, and two small screens which are scored with scars of red paint at key moments in the story. One of the many strengths of the Grimeborn approach is that the small space brings every member of the audience close in to the drama.
There is so much fine singing that once again I hesitate to pick out individuals but Hazel Neighbour as Ottavia fills her brief moments in the spotlight with glorious singing and righteous indignation and Kieran White (singing three roles) once again shows what a magical tenor voice and a flair for comedy can bring to the small role of Poppea’s servant Arnalta. There are a number of other Ensemble OrQuesta stalwarts – particularly Poppy Shotts and Anna-Luise Wagner – who shine in small roles and the overwhelming sense is of a group of performers who have bought into da Silva’s approach to baroque opera. His group of musicians playing baroque instruments is similarly accomplished though early tuning problems in the warm and humid atmosphere on the press night were evident.
As baroque opera has worked its way back into the repertoire – particularly fuelled by a new enthusiasm for Handel – Ensemble OrQuesta’s approach, which offers an accessible and enjoyable way to enjoy the less familiar conventions of early opera, seems to me increasingly valuable. I hope that every seat is filled for the short run of this wonderful production.
- Composed by: Claudio Monteverdi
- Words by: Giovanni Busenello
- Director (Stage and Music): Marcio da Silva
- Performers incl: Helen May, Julia Portela Pinon, Hazel Neighbour, Kieran White
- Venue: Arcola, Dalston (Grimeborn Festival)
- Until 30 July
- Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes