Review of ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’: “Dark seduction”

Last week, the Arcola Theatre inaugurated its summer opera festival with a new take on one of the very first classics in all of the genre’s history. Guillermo Názara tells us about his experience at the opening night of this reinvisioned production by the Ensemble OrQuesta, where tradition and avant-garde meet in a epic tale about the corruption of love and power.

It’s 10:30 pm on a cool summer London night. The yellow-bricked streets of Dalston still buzz through the late hours, though the whistling sound of the breeze precedes its closure for the day. It won’t take long until the only remaining signs of life are the ones coming from the warm sunny-coloured beams of the residents’ rooms and the humming murmur of the cold-shaded streelamps. The curtain is falling at the Eastern neighbourhood, merging in unison with the twilight of its major local theatre – whose performance (the last of the evening but the first of many others to arrive) has dimmed the lights of its story goodbye.

I walk home immersed in a sea of blinding flashes and the deafening impatient noises of the centre’s hustle – strangely enough, intermittently interrupted by the peaceful yet occasionally unnerving stillness of utter silence. But my mind is somewhere else – and some time (or times) else too. Through slides made of memories and imagination, I ramble by the images of a decaying imperial Rome, the nurturing cultural rebirth of 16th-century Venice and some other place. One that’s not possible to name and almost as difficult to describe, the kind your insticts understand, but reason would only spoil it. Claudio Monteverdi’s so-called masterpiece has been revived at the Arcola Theatre, opening the path to an extensive sucession of reinvented versions of classical material, currently running until mid-September. A venue known for its experimental approach on their productions, this one makes no exception at all.

Played within the intimacy of a small blackbox hall, the Ensemble OrQuesta’s vision of this baroque innovation (by the original première’s standards) sets its foundation in the mixture of musical purism and theatrical anarquism (no derogatory innuendo intended). Featuring a historic-piece orchestra playing actual period instruments, the staging walks on a blurry line separating visual symbolism and figurative setting. The proximity of the audience to its reduced scenery is probably one of its strongest pros. Provided by the venue itself but profited by the show’s direction (credit to Marcio da Silva), the enhanced eroticism of this montage (serving as the guiding thread) is therefore reinforced by the absence of any distance between viewers and characters.

Using just a small bed and two thin black backdrops working as a token canvas of the grotesque affairs that will take place, the intentional simplicity of the design however works as a double-edged sword, as it fails to recreate any other moments than those happening beneath the sheets. A similar problem occurs with the blocking, especially during the first act, as the many possibilities the Arcola’s double-leveled space offers go missing quite repeatedly – and without the aid of narratively efficient lighting, the different ambiences that could have been recreated are lost into a too generic (and indeed monotonous) atmosphere.

This is nevertheless balanced out by the remarkably high quality of its cast. Most of them exuding exceptional vocal technique, it’s not their musical capability that stands out, though – it’s their acting. Any usual consumer of both opera and regular theatre (either musical or textual) is no doubt aware of the non-exisiting care many classical singers give to what their personas are going through. Not only do they not make the same expected mistake, but they excell at flagging emotions, dramatic tension and comedic relief with intesity and naturality – thus giving us some hope for the advent of non-static credible bel canto chanters. The biggest mention goes this time to British-Irish soprano Hazel Neighbour, whose bitter portrayal of the tragic Ottavia is at some moments trascendent, pouring out the character’s pain into the air and letting it flow into the hearts of the spectators.

With its quirks and flaws, the Ensemble OrQuesta’s L’Incoronazione makes a nice effort at bringing back early material and twisting its looks around to explore the possibilities of its theatricality. With the proper corrections, we could be standing by some interesting thespian study, and all in all, an enjoyable piece of entertainment – with the potential of sucess for not just a literate audience, but those willing to free themselves into the arms of a new (to them) artform. Il più inquieto affetto è la pazza ambizione.

★★★☆☆

L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been played as a part of the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn Opera Festival, which runs until 10 September. Tickets and upcoming shows are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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