Adapted for the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn Festival, Marcio De Silva’s production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea is a dark and sensual delight. Ensemble OrQuesta masterfully breathe new life into this popular, controversial baroque opera, while remaining faithful to its original score and spirit.
Returning for its fifteenth year, Grimeborn is an East-London based opera and musical theatre festival which aims to showcase emerging and experimental talent. The Arcola Theatre’s intimate space makes for a thrillingly up-close and personal operatic experience, with De Silva’s soft red and purple lighting design illuminating the players’ every expression.
L’incoronazione’s action takes place in ancient Rome, where the allegorical figures Virtue (Hazel Neighbour) and Fortune (Rachel Allen) battle over which has the greater influence over humanity. Their enjoyable posturing is interrupted by a gloriously smug and haughty Love (Anna-Luise Wagner), who claims her superiority – before expertly manipulating the passions and whims of our flawed protagonists to prove it. Black canvases at either end of the stage keep score throughout, with characters marking wins with red paint in a highly effective piece of set design.
Subject to Love’s machinations, politically ambitious Poppea, played beautifully by soprano Helen May, catches the eye of the nefarious Emperor Nerone (Nero), portrayed with an impressive performance by mezzo soprano Julia Portela Pinon. Nerone is determined that no obstacle should stand in the way of her becoming empress – be it his vengeful scorned wife Ottavia, (Hazel Neighbour), a philosophising Seneca (Gheorghe Palcu) or Poppea’s mournful ex-lover Ottone (Eric Schlossberg). Morality is turned on its head in this tale, with vain and villainous characters ultimately rewarded, and the most virtuous characters meeting sticky ends.
Despite their questionable motivations, the chemistry between Poppea and Nerone is palpable, professing their love with a blistering eroticism from which it is impossible to look away. Tenor Kieran White has fun with his role as Arnalta, providing comic relief and worldly advice in counselling Poppea to pursue ‘more fruitful sins’. The production harks back to opera’s tradition of gender fluid casting, and De Silva artfully explores the homoerotic possibilities of Monteverdi’s libretto.
The live orchestra, made up of harpsichord, organ, archlute, baroque guitar, recorder, a cello and two violins, forms the heart of the production, their vivacious performances filling the space with truly exquisite music. Greater use could have been made of the mezzanine level sheltering the musicians, however the allegorical figures based on the main stage heightened the opera’s delicious levelling effect of gods walking amongst us, meddling with our affairs and subject to our failings.