“I gave you all my love and this is my reward?”
Monteverdi’s opera The Coronation of Poppea is one of the first that was ever written and this new version by Mark Ravenhill and Alex Silverman marks the continuation of OperaUpClose’s rebranding of the King’s Head pub theatre in Islington as London’s Little Opera House. They were responsible for the Olivier award-winning La Bohème which was judged the best new opera of 2010, for its reinvention and modernising of Verdi’s classic and a similar blast of imagination has been aimed here.
Ravenhill has translated the work into English, modernised and colloquialised it – the first line, sung, is perhaps predictably ‘what the fuck’ reworking – and trimmed it down considerably to 2 hours 15 minutes. But perhaps the biggest change is with the music which has been re-scored and re-arranged for a jazz ensemble of saxophone, double bass and piano by musical director Alex Silverman and on top of that, Michael Nyman has been drafted in to compose a new aria which has been added into the mix. The opera follows the rise of Poppea, mistress of the Roman emperor Nero, as she fights her way to fulfil her dream of becoming empress, not letting his advisers or either of their spouses to get in the way.
As Poppea, Zoë Bonner’s expressive soprano was gorgeous to listen to and her ambition well portrayed but truthfully I wasn’t much invested in her relationship with Jessica Walker’s Annie Lennox-like Nero, their passion for each other couldn’t quite over-ride how distasteful these characters were in their lack of regard for others which negated the power of the beautiful final duet a little for me. Rather it was the supporting performances that brought the real emotion to the climaxes of each act: Martin Nelson’s obedient-to-the-death (quite literally) Seneca had a stunning grace and clarity of powerful purpose that was most moving in two pieces just before the interval; and Rebecca Caine’s scorned wife Ottavia pulled at the heart-strings as her plans were thwarted, delivering the best piece of the night before drenching herself in blood to sing Nyman’s intervention. It is perhaps no coincidence that these were all accompanied by simpler arrangements: I found the more intricate jazz stylings to be something of a distraction at times, especially in the intimate space.
Katie Bellman has created a mini-thrust stage with a sunken pool in the middle which provided a focal point for much of the action. The seats are not quite sufficiently raked though and every time the performers sat or lay down (and it happens a lot) they disappeared from view from my fourth row seat: a little frustrating. Ravenhill’s direction also feels a little muddled at times, aiming for a climaxing tableau at the interval which falls flat and perhaps a little too much splashing around in the pool. Still, there’s a quirkiness to this opera/jazz hybrid, backed by some seriously first-rate singing, that is invigorating, entertaining but above all accessible.