Hampstead Garden Opera, Musica Poetica
Jacksons Lane Theatre, HIghgate. 13 May 2017
The 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth will include many performances of L’incoronazione di Poppea. It was his last known opera, first performed just months before his death. But I think this one, by the young singers and instrumentalists of Hampstead Garden Opera and Musica Poetica, will prove to be one of the most memorable for me. An impressively simple staging, excellent singing and acting, and an exceptionally well judged realisation of the instrumental accompaniments, combined with the friendly acoustic of the Jacksons Lane Theatre to produce an absorbing and thought-provoking interpretation of Monteverdi’s exploration of love, lust, and power.
Although historians do not agree on what happened during the events depicted in the opera, the librettist, Busenello, admitted to playing fast and loose with what were then thought of as historical ‘facts’. He explained that he had adapted all the characters to suit the plot. Shorn of direct historical relevance, this allows audiences to focus on the characters and their interaction with each other. That said, when listening to the famous final Pur ti miro duet between Nerone and Poppea, it is still chilling to be reminded of the story of the historic Nero and Poppaea Sabina in the period after that covered by the opera.
The set (designed, along with the costumes, by Ele Slade, and lit by Amy Clarke) consisted of a simple rear screen with six openings in it, all but one covered (or not) by vertical translucent blinds. Props were minimal, and were moved on and off stage by neatly choreographed members of the cast dressed in black. Although from the (rather confusing) surviving evidence, there appear to be some 28 singing parts, it seems likely that the original Venice production shared the roles amongst just 11 singers. HGO used 12 singers, but complicated things for themselves by having dual casting for seven of the roles. This gave more young singers the chance to perform, but must have made rehearsals more complicated. HGO focus on supporting young singers, if not financially, at least with performance opportunities, so having dual casting, common in conservatory opera productions, is to be welcomed.
I was at the second performance, which was also the first for seven members of the cast. Amongst the many impressive singers, I would mention Charlotte Levesley as a lithe and sprightly Goth-like Amore, Véronique Rapin as a very convincing Ottone both vocally and visually, Grace Carter as a powerful and seductive Poppea, CN Lester in an excellent portrayal of the young boy Nerone, tenor William Branston in a range of roles including Liberto and Lucano, Angelica Conner as Virtue and Damigella, Helen May as a well-acted Valetto, Elen Lloyd Roberts as Drusilla, Béatrice de Larragoïti as Ottavia, and Rob O’Connell as Seneca. The youthfulness of the singers was a distinct advantage in the portrayal of the plot which historically was largely made up of young people.
Musically, not all the singers were sufficiently advanced in their musical training to have grasped the complex singing techniques of the early to mid 17th century, or had not yet had the chance to learn how to control the vibrato that, unfortunately, tends to develop during conservatory training. I missed the distinctive trills expected in Monteverdi, although one or two singers did have a go. With that proviso, I was impressed with the way they all treated Monteverdi’s text-dominent speech-based recitatives, the fluidity of which is key to performance of this era. Musically, one of the delights of this, and similar works, is the way that the sung speech of recitative merges almost imperceptibly into more formal arioso, usually indicated by a more regular pulse.
The direction, by Simin Iorio, assisted by Caitlin Fretwell Walsh, was well judged in its simplicity and focus on the characters and the interrelation between them. Indeed, some of the finest moments were the scenes where two of the characters interact. There are several of these, each full of drama, and all featuring fine acting from the singers. Key amongst theme was the early farewell scene between Nerone and Poppea, the confrontation between Seneca and Valletto, and the drunken cavorting of Nerone and Lucano after Seneca’s death. The larger scale scenes were similarly effective, again focussing on the text and the action with none of the extraneous overlays beloved of some opera directors.
The musical direction was by Oliver John Ruthven, for several years the Principal Musical Director of HGO and returning for this production. An early music specialist, he had clearly coached the singers well in absorbing many aspects of the Monteverdi style. Along with Ryaan Ahmed, he had prepared an edition of the music from a published edition, making sensible cuts to suit the overall timing, and the casting. He led a group of 8 instrumentalists, with a busy continuo group of two harpsichords, theorbo, harp and viola da gamba (played by Oliver John Ruthven, Simon Lloyd, Ryaan Ahmed, Aileen Henry, and Kate Conway), together with two violins and violone (Claudia Norz, Alice Earll, and Jan Zahourek). The choice of continuo instrumentation was apt for each occasion, with a wide variety of sound combinations coming from the five instruments. The instrumentalists were on a gallery above and behind the singers, but the intensity of rehearsals was evident in their excellent sense of timing, despite their being no conductor, and with rather restricted sightlines from gallery to stage.
Full details of the production, personnel, and future performance dates can be found here. Poppea runs until 21 May. It is well worth catching.