The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Blood, Tears And Gold

On Monday evening the wife & I went to The King’s Head Theatre to see The Coronation Of Poppea, by Claudio Monteverdi, with new words in English by Mark Ravenhill and a bonus tune by Michael Nyman. I’d been convinced to go partly through its author plugging it, and partly because we’d had such fun seeing Troy Boy we thought this might be in a similar vein.

And it was, in the sense that it was another opera in the back room of a pub, what they call an intimate venue, where one has to keep one’s legs under the seat to avoid accidentally tripping up the performers. And it was a small cast, with minimal staging and accompaniment. In this case, the accompaniment was a jazz trio, with Monteverdi’s chords expressed on bass, sax and piano.

The performers were all very strong, and the direction and dialogue wrung as much sex and drama out of the situations as possible. The first scene was a little worrying, as there was a bit of the ‘I am about to go!’, ‘Please don’t go!’, ‘But I must go!’, ‘Then go!’, 'I shall go but first I shall stay!' stuff that always makes opera seem so baffling whenever they have it on television with subtitles. But after that it gained more momentum, and the lyrics carried more meaningful drama, particularly in the second act when the conspiracy kicks in. Of course, as I know Poppea survives to become Nero’s wife in the Doctor Who story The Romans, there wasn’t as much suspense for me as they might have been.

I think it’s a tribute to the performers that the initial strangeness of Nero being played by a woman faded away very quickly; I don’t think one goes into an opera expecting total realism in the first place. I’d say the highlights were the death of Seneca, in a literal blood-bath, and the closing duet between Nero and Poppea, Pur Ti Miro. This was pretty much the only piece in the opera that featured vocal harmonies; being an extremely early opera, the rest is all sung singularly, or what the internet tells me is call homophonic.

I’m tempted to go and see a full-on opera house production next, but I’d recommend these King’s Head productions as a much less expensive, and much more informal way of getting to hear these tunes. And sung in English too, which I think makes a huge amount of difference in terms of making opera accessible; those television subtitles are always so clunkily-translated, and are always half a minute out of synch with the action so you never know who they refer to.