Edinburgh International Festival
19.00 17th August ONLY
Composed and performed the year before his death in 1643, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea is set in first-century Rome, where Nero is emperor, married to Ottavia, but enamoured of Poppea. It charts the stages whereby Poppea ascends to the imperial throne over a pile of broken hearts and dead bodies: it underplays neither Nero’s insane self-obsessed lust for power and control nor Poppea’s cold and calculating campaign to rise to the dizzy heights of emperor’s consort. Seneca, the wise counsellor who attempts to warn Nero that his actions are causing disquiet among the Senate and Roman people, is ordered to take his own life: the empress Ottavia is banished after a failed attempt on Poppea’s life by her ex-lover Ottone. It’s almost impossible to warm to, or feel sympathy for, either Nero or Poppea – and yet their final ecstatic duet achieves the seemingly impossible, and celebrates their union as the pinnacle of human achievement and a consummation devoutly to be wished.
John Eliot Gardiner and his extraordinarily talented singers and orchestra presented us with another engrossing evening. Most of the singers we had already seen in the previous nights’ operas: they displayed yet more versatility, singing superbly and throwing themselves into their parts with gusto. The noble, grieving Penelope from Ulisse [Lucile Richardot] became the coarse and vulgar nurse to Poppea, enjoying to the full her own raised social status and influence arising from her charge’s elevation to the throne, while the bombastic Neptune [Gianluca Buratto] became the noble, wise, and dignified Seneca; Anna Dennis again shone, this time as the love-lorn Drusilla, persuaded to aid Ottone in his attempt on Poppea’s life in the hope that he would then turn to her for consolation: her Ottone, Carlo Vistoli, appeared briefly in L’Orfeo but now commanded centre stage as Poppea’s supplanted lover, struggling with his conflicting emotions and desires, and powerless to refuse the empress’s order to assassinate the woman he still loves.
I was less smitten with either Nerone or Poppea – neither voice warmed my heart, and they appeared to be [intentionally?] a pair of heedless teenagers, obsessed with each other, determined to achieve their object, and heartlessly plotting the destruction of every obstacle in their way. It was hard not to draw parallels with certain current world leaders… despite all this, as the darkness fell around them and their entwining voices faded into silence, I was brought to tears by the sheer beauty of their final duet.