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<<  -- 4 --  Roderic Dunnett    APOTHEOSIS OF THE MADRIGAL

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Seneca's demise -- a blood-red rearstage bath that becomes the tomb for the ensuing scene ('My guiltless blood shall crimson my road to death') -- like the simply conceived horizontal drop-flap that lowered or raised to yield a cirrus-clouded Lullian Baroque heaven -- was a splendidly direct piece of design by Poppea's economic designer, Jean-Marc Puissant.

Shirley Keane as Valetto. Photo © 2002 Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale
Shirley Keane as Valetto. Photo © 2002 Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale

Shirley Keane's Valetto (this Irish soprano, a perky product of London's fast-emerging Rose Bruford College in Sidcup, has as good an acting as singing future), was as delightfully impish as the Icelandic Gudrun Olofsdottir singing Lazuli, the trousers role hero in the Guildhall School's L'Etoile. The Valletto's beige-background catwalk dalliance with his spry 'Damigella' (the sensual Serving Maid, pertly and attractively sung by Lucy Crowe) looked brazenly brilliant. Seneca is the past : these two are the future.

Vassilis Kostopoulos as Seneca. Photo © 2002 Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale
Vassilis Kostopoulos as Seneca. Photo © 2002 Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale

But L'Incoronazione di Poppea hinges on Nero and his assorted women, the spurned wife (Claudius' daughter Octavia, sister of the doomed Britannicus) and Poppea, Ottone's wife and the imperial bit on the side, whom Amore from the outset plots to raise to royalty. Rebecca Cooper's dominant Nero, a humdinger of a performance which I greatly enjoyed, had charged persona and a satisfying full tone which she bangs out with aplomb. An exciting, dangerous presence. But Cooper tends to approach an (at best) uncertain vibrato from beneath and overemphasises each phrase, at times almost monotonously, to the detriment of musical phrasing, where a little more 'give' would help. Some maturing still to come, then, though larger-scale Handel certainly beckons.

Rebecca Cooper as the amorous Nero, on the phone to Poppea. Photo © 2002 Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale
Rebecca Cooper as the amorous Nero, on the phone to Poppea. Photo © 2002 Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale

Cooper excelled most where Nero blasts, hurling Seneca's books, which were positively balooning out of his musty study, with boyish glee into his tomb -- aided by his crony, Adrian Clarke's Lucano -- oddly scripted : Lucan ('Pharsalia'), was actually a poet himself, and Seneca's nephew; cooing over Poppea's breasts down a mobile phone (ubiquitous in opera these days, but still fun); or dispensing an unexpected dose of 'La Clemenza di Nerone' -- the despot seems to have learned at least something from his Stoic tutor -- in pardoning Ottone and the loyal Drusilla, nicely characterised by Stockholm-trained Jenny Ohlson, at the close. Nero's sudden switch of dynamic to address the last, 'e tu' -- he might almost have been addressing Poppea herself -- was Cooper's best vocal moment all evening, for it confirmed earlier suggestions that she, too, can deliver real emotional variety -- and even pathos -- when called upon.

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Copyright © 13 December 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK

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