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Occasionally Stunning

ROBERT HUGILL at English National Opera's
'The Coronation of Poppea'


Chen Shi-Zheng's dramatic, but highly decorative production of Monteverdi's Orfeo was such a success at the London Coliseum that it has emboldened English National Opera to allow Chen Shi-Zheng to traverse all the other Monteverdi operas. Thus his new production of The Coronation of Poppea premièred recently (seen Saturday 20 October 2007) even though the company performed the opera relatively recently.

Chen Shi-Zheng's productions are based around his own Orange Blossom Dance Company and whilst they fitted in well with Chen Shi-Zheng's concept for Orfeo, it was less obvious how they would fit into the more naturalistically dramatic Coronation of Poppea. Orfeo is an opera about archetypes, about the struggle of a single soul (Orpheus). It was written as court opera, whereas Poppea was written for the Venetian public theatre. As such, it is less about archetypes and more about character, the interaction of character, serious but with a heavy admixture of comedy and with a large cast (some twenty-one singing roles).

ENO had assembled a strong cast with a mixture of experienced singers and relative newcomers. Amongst the old hands were Robert Lloyd as Seneca, Diana Montague as Nurse (Nutrice) and Venus, and Christopher Gillett as Arnalta. Lucy Crowe, who performed Poppea to such great effect in ENO's recent production of Handel's Agrippina, was Damigella. Poppea, Nerone and Ottone were played by relative newcomers Kate Royal, Anna Grevelius and Tim Mead. All well and promising.

Kate Royal as Poppea
Kate Royal as Poppea

Part one opened with Katherine Manley, Jane Harrington and Sophie Bevan as Fortune, Virtue and Love, costumed gaudily and amazingly in highly coloured, dramatic and vivid dresses. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's dresses for all the women (including Christopher Gillett as Arnalta) were striking and remarkable, though they did have a certain tacky, TV spectacular look which rather jarred with the characters. In contrast the men were generally dressed plainly. In both cases, there seemed to be little attempt to differentiate between the various characters, Ottavia (Doreen Curren) and Kate Royal's Poppea were costumed in an equally sluttishly sexy way; though when Poppea is transformed into Empress at the end her fabulous dress out-does even the goddesses. With the men it was even harder to tell them apart and, sitting in the Upper Circle, there was little in the way of obvious hierarchy.

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Copyright © 24 October 2007 Robert Hugill, London UK


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