Il Coronazione di Poppeia
When Glyndebourne go to the Proms, it’s always a lively occasion. I’m sure half the celebratory anticipation is due to the simple fact over a thousand of us can get in for about a fiver, which wouldn’t even pay for the cheapest public transport to the opera house, let alone even a sandwich when you're there.
It means the audience will forgive a lot. Particularly that Glyndebourne singers are never first rank, or, to be honest, even second, for example. But they always make up in infectious enthusiasm and commitment, and, what is still a rare sight in some places, they act. (They act with their voices, too . . .) That is presumably why the Glyndebourne Proms, for all they are described as “semi-staged” are now as near as dammit fully staged, just with fewer props and no stage sets or prosc arch.
I remember the first time they came to the Proms, when they were supposed to be doing a ‘concert performance’, but quite simply forgot not to move; so well before half-way through the first act they’d all lapsed into acting as though they were on the Glyndebourne stage, and some of them nearly fell off the platform onto the Arena audience.
So I would probably have been a little more enthusuastic if I’d watched rather than just listened, for all that latterly the Glyndebourne productions have come unnervingly close to a send up. I suspect this time there may well have been some fancy near-slapstick antics going on around the bathtub, judging from the occasional laughter. But then, live, it usually works.
But listening, I’m a little less forgiving, and I found there is quite a lot in both the Times and Guardian’s critics’ reviews of Poppeia at Glyndebourne I agree with; but there was rather more than just ‘ditzy bottom-waggling’ to Danielle de Niese’s Cleopatra in Julius Caesar in 2005. (A friend and I can still do our version of the wonderfully funny but also threatening ‘confrontational gavotte’ between her as Cleopatra and Sarah Connolly as Caesar.) I can’t help thinking someone here is trying to avoid mentioning that at least a little of the frisson she engendered might not have been just through her voice, but have been helped along by her being sexy enough to get away with being both braless and (I think) knickerless under a translucent gown. At least at the Albert Hall.
The singing this time was simply glorious, and, as I’ve come to expect from the Glyndebourne, intensely dramatic. There was the smell of menace, casual evil, threat, corruption and blood from the very beginning. None of which could have ben unfamiliar to Monteverdi in Venice. It was, after all, the Venetians who lived with the constant threat of anonymous denunciations slipped into the mouth of the lions, who invented the art of ‘disappearing’ people who later turned up strangled in the street with no explanation. And all the Italian city states had their own histories of devious, vicious, cruel, bloodthirsty, murderous and every now and then downright mad rulers who might occasionally have surprised Nero. All the Glyndebourne cast captured this sanguine emotionally charged atmosphere superbly. There were duets that were simply scary.
Contrary to one critic, I thought Danielle de Niese’s Poppeia was superbly coloured and rich, full of character, whether her register might be entirely historically accurate for a Montevedi opera or not. What can’t be was her somewhat melodramatic vibrato, something which cropped up elsewhere incongruously, vocal slippage which I can only think must be down to the musical director.
I am not so sure about Alice Coote’s Nero; another critic noted a certain shrillness, which I thought distractingly prevalent, and occasionally bitter, even strained at times, in this performance. There are other, and better, ways of implying neuroticism. Not that the Neumann mics the BBC uses help, it must be said. And among the ‘major’ characters, Tamara Mumford (Octavia) turned in a star performance, excellently nuanced, characterful again, with a splendid emotional range that almost had me in tears at times. Both she and Alice Coote must have had the Albert Hall audience gasping for breath at times, I’m sure.
What I cannot be forgiving about is the musical direction of Emmannuelle Haim. For all I would applaud using a minimal chamber-sized ensemble, for the life of me I could barely recognise any authentic Monteverdi, even allowing that the score has been ‘recreated’ anyway. Musically, the tempi were plodding and invariable, many passages merely repetitious with little attempt at variation. Much struck me as being played more as though it belonged to the early Cinquecento not the Seicento, while one dance tune was played more like a stately18th century gavotte than anything of its real era and a little jig cropped up more than once that was more Susato than anything from the near mid-1600’s Italy.
I am just not keen on French styles of ‘early music’ performance; they have practically stifled Handel’s oratorios and operas in France, to the extent very few there grasp our current enthusiasm for their revivals on this side of the Channel. We in Britain have been taught forms of playing much more various, daring, and, dare I say it, lively, even sometimes challenging, over the forty years or so since David Munrow and Alfred Deller. To be blunt, William Christie’s own Les Arts Florissants (with whom I discovered later, Haim spent a decade) seldom enthuses me with anything more than mildly academic appreciation, for all the success of the Handel in 2005 with the OAE, and Marc Minkowski’s egotistical revisionism of Rameau at last year’s Proms was one of the worst examples of pretentiousnous.
Haim, in this oeuvre, it seems to me, failed to come to terms with its possibilities and left it a fossil, as though she was unwilling to deviate any distance at all from the surviving bass line in terms of scoring, and certainly not in imagination. Her own harpsichord continuo was percussive, merely twiddly and barely more than decorative; a series of Grinling Gibbons carvings, with little to do with Venice.
I have heard the OAE play with vastly more engagement and panache, particularly with a Prom audience before them, than they showed for more than a very few sparse bars under her direction in Poppeia. It was the soloists who were left to carry the performance by default, and that, in Monteverdi, is just not enough to be entirely plausible. I don’t think I’ve ever been so unenthused by Monteverdi’s music. Perhaps, as she was hinting in an interview, she would do better with ‘authentic’ Mozart, though I doubt I shall want to listen to it.
(R3 Relay) Prom 18: Monteverdi, l'incoronazione di Poppeia, Glyndebourne Opera
(This is on the iPlayer list, in two parts, rather widely separated for some odd reason. Sadly, there won't be an afternoon repeat, nor any video, which is really regrettable, presumably becasue of complications with royalties, residulas and contracts that would simply make it too expensive. Catch the audio while you can, if you didn't hear it the first time.)