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Chen Shi-Zheng and his set designer Walt Spangler seem to have decided to set most of the opera under water. The basic set was a flexible series of screens onto which could be projected a variety of images. For much of Act One these images were of water and fishes; we even had a real diver floating past above the heads of the singers. Ottavia was always seen sitting on what appeared to be a giant white pumpkin and Nerone was followed by a giant multicoloured squid.

For most of the opera the dancers seemed under used and they spent rather a lot of time simply manipulating the props and the portable bits of scenery, to no particular effect. Chen Shi-Zheng seemed to avoid them dancing to the most obvious dance movements in the ritornellos. Sometimes they acted as a commentary upon the action. But the entire production came into its own when the final duet was accompanied by the female dancers as giant air-borne dragonflies. The result was hypnotic and mesmerising, truly brilliant.

Unfortunately these brilliant moments were accompanied by stretches of recitative where Chen Shi-Zheng seemed to leave the singers to their own devices. This meant that the more experienced singers were more successful. It is always worrying in this opera when the dramatic temperature increases when Seneca comes on. Unfortunately here, Robert Lloyd succeeded in raising the dramatic values considerably, which meant that Royal and Grevelius came over as underpowered.

I dislike being critical of performances which were, generally, very promising and quite winning. But the interaction between Royal and Grevelius simply lacked the necessary intensity. It did not help that each singer created a rather one dimensional character. Royal's Poppea seemed to be permanently sluttishly sexy, always ready to pout and to slide her voice sexily around the vocal line. Grevelius's Nerone was youthfully bright, but without the sexual spark and without a real streak of cruelty. Too often Grevelius seemed in a bad temper and definitely not the dangerous ruler of the known world.

Tim Mead's Ottone was similarly hampered. Mead is a talented singer and he did some wonderful things in the opera (including stripping off to his y-fronts for no apparent reason except to show he has a good body). But in the more dramatic moments he tended to try too hard, pushing his voice in the large ENO space. It was in the quieter moments when he managed to imbue the role with the necessary tragic intensity. Ottone is one of the few genuine characters in the opera and it is important that the singer engage our sympathy. Mead managed to do this, but it did take him rather a long time to do it.

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Copyright © 24 October 2007 Robert Hugill, London UK


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