Last night I went into Woking to meet Tom. Given the fact that I unexpectedly ran into him on Wednesday night, it doesn’t surprise me that I ran into Lara on the way to the theatre. Actually, this shouldn’t be so surprising, I walked right by where she works and it was just after 6pm.
I arrived at the Wheatsheaf and we had a pint and a half and a jolly good old chat for an hour then walked over to the theatre. Tom was going home so I bade him farewell and made my way into the stalls.
Firstly, the house was remarkably full. I know Glyndbourne is very highly regarded and last year there was a pretty healthy audience, but I wouldn’t have thought this opera would have attracted many. But, hey, what do I know. Maybe Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea is an opera fan’s favourite. The stalls were full and there were people in the circle above.
Secondly, perhaps because of the size of the audience but more likely because of the heating, it was very warm. This made it increasingly difficult to stay awake. This is not a comment on the production!
The opera was written in 1643 and was (not quite) the first to be written about a real historical event. It concerns Nero’s decision to divorce his wife, Ottavia and marry, instead, his lover Poppea. It is a wonderful celebration of the best in Roman debauch. It also features the first nude scene I’ve ever encountered in an opera.
The male solo parts were originally written for castrata so all but one were sung by women, men not likely to be able to hit the high notes while in possession of their testicles. In saying that, the guy playing Ottone (Christopher Ainslie) managed to do it, though his voice wasn’t that strong. Anyway, what this meant last night was there was an awful lot of unintentional girl-on-girl action! Still, I digress.
After a prologue featuring a bet between a few gods, we are straight into Poppea’s bedroom. Nero is there as well and they’ve clearly just had a good time. She doesn’t want him to go; he doesn’t want to go. After some singing and groping, and almost ending up back on the bed, Nero leaves.
It was at about this time that a mobile phone went off. Very loud. Right next to me. As the man scrambled to get it out of his pocket, the volume increased enough to drown out the singing. Very annoying. Apparently it was a delivery company telling him when his bookshelves were due to be delivered. He told most of us this at the interval.
Like jamming devices, I think there should be activation devices which make all mobile phones within range ring at the same time. These should be activated just before the show starts. It would solve the problem. I know exactly what Karen is thinking if she’s reading this and I don’t think we should go into that.
Act 1 dragged a bit. There was a lot of relationship stuff and not a lot (read none) of action. All necessary, of course but it made it hard to stay awake. Actually, I wasn’t very successful and managed to doze a few times.
Acts 2 & 3, however, were much better. While not exactly full of action, there was a lot of tension. Particularly noticeable was the scene where Nero drowns a guy in a bath. Nero (played superbly by Lucia Cirillo) was menacing and evil. He reminded me of a small mafia boss who enjoyed his power so much that he actively engaged in murder because he could. Ms Cirillo was wonderful to watch, her voice strong and controlled. If for nothing else, the show was worth seeing for her.
My favourite scene, however, was Drusilla in the bath. A bath on wheels had been wheeled on for the murder scene and remained for her to sink into (surrounded by maids in order to protect her privacy). A long line of servants then filed onto the stage holding trays with something strange wobbling on them. They would vanish into the midst of the maids then reappear without the wobbly stuff, the trays now empty. When the lights came up and the maids dispersed, Drusilla was revealed, lying back in the bath, her body covered in foam. For that was what was on the trays.
Drusilla (the gorgeous Manuela Bisceglie) spent most of the scene in the bath until the man she loved, Ottone, appeared to tell her he had to go and kill Poppea on the orders of Ottavia. She grabbed a towel and slipped out of the bath in that clever way woman can, showing nothing. The rest of the scene was spent in the towel her legs glistening with bath water. And she wasn’t faking it either. At one point she flashes Ottone by holding the towel open. While we could only see her from the side, she was definitely naked.
Everything ends happily for some and pretty bad for others and the opera finishes with a wonderful duet between Nero and Poppea. The sound of their voices stayed in my head all the way home. I’ve found a version on Youtube and have embedded it below.
Which leads me to say that there were no real tunes in Poppea. I know it’s an opera and not a musical (it would make a fantastic musical though – someone should tell Sondheim) but most operas have a memorable song or two. Poppea has none. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it makes it all a bit more realistic even while being just a bunch of people warbling in Italian to each other rather than talking.
Suffice to say that I enjoyed it. Not as much as last year but still quite a lot. Not enough tragedy, I guess.
If you’d like to know more about the opera, there’s a wiki page here.