The Coronation of Poppea is the final act in this landmark work in the development of Italian opera – the first to be based on a historical episode rather than on a mythological or religious subject – was staged in just two performances at the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn Opera Festival. The Grimeborn Festival, a word-play on the more exclusive Glyndebourne, now in its 8th year, was established to present opera performed by emerging musicians and singers to a wider audience in the informal, chamber setting of the Arcola.
The theme of this opera is the triumph of love and greed over moral virtue, as represented by the burning lust for imperial power and romance by Poppea Sabina, a Roman commoner.
The Coronation of Poppea presents enormous challenges and opportunities to directors and performers alike. Its musical score only survives in two contemporary copies made by anonymous hands, in which only the singing parts and accompanying bass line, as well as a few instrumental pieces are written out.
In this realisation, the instrumental music is provided by a modest ensemble of nine players with a mixture of period and modern instruments, comprising four strings, chamber organ, harpsichord, baroque harp and theorbo. The playing, under the direction of Chris Parsons, is to a high standard and is well balanced against the singing.
In some modern productions, various cuts are made to the score without affecting the plot and the best known melodies, made possible by the fact that the story line is rather simple. In the Arcola staging, the original libretto is diligently followed, amounting to a three and 20 minutes performance. This lengthening of the opera means some repetitive scoring, particularly in the first part, and diluted dramatic intensity.
The set is essentially is simple, yet effective. It consists of three rectangular boxes of different size and three mannequins – or tailor’s dummies – representing the emperor, his rejected wife and ambitious mistress. The symbolism represented by these props is rather clever and used to great effect throughout the opera. Another symbolic touch is the contrast between Poppea’s (Elizabeth Holmes) light-coloured satin body-hugging dresses and the blackish, staid garb of Nero’s rejected wife, Ottavia (Maria Ostroukhova).
The cast of singers; performance is uniformly strong. The principal singers, Elizabeth Holms and Stephanie Marshall provide highly competent performances in both their singing and acting roles. The high pitched part for Nero was originally intended to be sung by a castrato and these days it is generally sung by a soprano, as it is here. The most successful dramatic scenes are considered to be those involving the plot to murder Nero and its discovery. While James Fisher (Seneca) has a fine baritone voice, his acting presence is rather stilted and the scene in which Seneca announces his imminent demise to his disciples falls rather flat. Humorous relief is provided by the nurses of Poppea and Ottavia.
In the costume department, the attire of the female cast members reasonably suits a Roman setting, but the modern formal dress donned by the males is out of character, making Seneca look like an outgrown student.
All-in-all The Coronation of Poppea at the Arcola makes for an enjoyable evening of entertainment, as evidenced by the rapt audience. It also attests to the ready adaptability of much opera repertoire to different types of venue, including studio auditoria.