Fresh from dusting off some unknown Cavalli at Grange Park, the Early Opera Company have taken up residence – for the tenth consecutive season – in Iford's Cloisters with a production of Monteverdi's masterpiece, The Coronation of Poppea. Once again they have called upon the services of Martin Constantine, a director adept at exploiting the dramatic possibilities and intimacy of the venue, while Christian Curnyn leads the young cast and a handful of musicians from the keyboard, conjuring up both chaste beauty and languorous sensuality. In best Iford tradition the result is direct, intoxicating and, ultimately, moving.
Even before the start, the all-pervading influence of Cupid in the story of Nero and his consort Poppea is made abundantly clear. As the audience shuffle to their seats, Cupid (a smartly-dressed and knowing Daniel Keating-Roberts) quietly makes preparations: clutching a pair of his arrows, he stands over a scale-sized, plywood model of the cloisters, measures up figures and consults blueprints; part of the cloisters themselves are clad in plywood, arrows variously embedded. His is very much a work in progress, one feels, and it's an impression emphasised by decision to stage a prologue to the Prologue. Accompanied by an improvisations from the orchestra, the dramatis personae stumble on in various states of undress, inebriation and intoxication. Cupid's brief has clearly expanded to include drugs and alcohol in this Class-A evocation of first-century Rome.
As with Constantine's Giasone last season, the singers' costumes are a touch eclectic: Drusilla (an impassioned Joanne Boag) in simple, Greek garb; Nero's soldiers in contemporary military fatigues and shades; Ottone is often snappily dressed in a striped shirt; jackets pinned and roughly sewn mid adjustment appear with regularity. The Poppea of Katherine Manley looks consistently ravishing, whether in a long white dress or carefully wrapped in a satin sheet, while Octavia is cruelly presented as spoilt goods in a basque with stylised panda eyes and scratched thighs. 'I'm not sure about her,' I overheard one patron in the interval, 'no wonder he's left her if she looks like that.' However, in the role Doreen Curran sang with passion, restoring some pride to the wronged wife.
One miscalculation, for me, was the decision to dress the youthful-looking Seneca of James Gower in a costume more redolent of Don Basilio in the Barber of Seville than the noble philosopher, topped off with thick-rimmed glasses. In Poppea's eyes he might be a stuffy bore, but this ran the risk of robbing him of dignity in the audience's eyes, too. Luckily, Gower gave a fine performance in an impressively resonant bass. Possibly the performance of the evening, however, came from Owen Willetts as an impassioned, moving and rich-voiced Ottone. The pair of James McOran-Campbell and Eylólfur Eyjólfsson, doubling as the soldiers and Nero's two friends, were also very strong, while Harriet Williams' Arnalta scurried around after her mistress with world-weary humour.
With a tenor Nero we were denied some of the sensuality of having a mezzo's vocal line intertwine with Poppea's in the duets, but Nicholas Sharratt sings with sensitivity, creating a character visibly fuelled by a volatile cocktail of power, passion andwhatever additional substances, in this case, Cupid might have provided. There was no mistaking the lust driving his early scenes with Poppea, even if it all the groping and kissing seemed a little too much in the light of a long summer's evening. Meanwhile, there was nothing veiled about the steamy homo-eroticism of his scene with Eyjólfsson's Lucano.
As night drew in, Constantine was allowed greater subtlety with lighting, creating magical effects in the garden and in the final scene, with Poppea and Nerone declaring their love lit by the rest of the cast carrying torches. Manley's Poppea, too, was at greater ease when reflective, singing with delicate beauty and acting with a regal nobility that seemed to come more naturally to her.
In the end, the production blended into the background as the performers drew the audience in as only they can in Iford's atmosphere. There were several judicious cuts and I missed the straightforward beauty of Busanello's original Italian, but Norman Platt's sensible translation was delivered with clarity, adding to the immediacy of the performance. The direction of the singers was both minutely observed and carried out with total commitment by the young cast. Leading them all, Curnyn and his players accompanied with melting beauty and instinctive dramatic pacing, showing that in this music less can very definitely mean more.
By Hugo Shirley
The Coronation of Poppea runs until 18 July. Eugene Onegin opens on 24 July .
All details can be found on the Iford Arts website.
Opera Review: EOC in Cavalli's Giasone (Iford 2008)
Opera Review: EOC in Cavalli's Eliogobalo at Grange Park
Opera Review: Un giorno di regno at the Iford (Summer 2008)
Opera Review: EOC's recoding of The Judgement of Paris (Chandos)