Written near to his death, Claudio Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea – a Roman tale of obsession, jealousy and betrayal – launched the medium of opera onto the stage and in doing so changed the course of music history forever. In a new condensed, English, jazz version by Mark Ravenhill and Alex Silverman, OperaUpClose takes the embellished historical tale of Emperor Nero and his lover to new, seductive heights.

© Simon Annand
© Simon Annand

Briefly: Rome is corrupt. Ignoring the anguish of his long-standing wife Ottavia, Nero lusts after the lady Poppea, pursuing an affair and aiming to make her Empress. Nero, blinded by desire and greed, is led to kill his tutor, the wise Seneca, who warns him of his folly. Ottavia, blinded by envy and resentment, orders Poppea's husband Ottone to kill Poppea. In a plot sequence which would later become an almost cliched operatic tradition, Ottone dresses as his admirer Drusilla, and sets out to kill Poppea. Craven and haunted by guilt, Ottone fails his mission, and is banished by Nero to live forever as a pauper with Drusilla. Ottavia casts a shadow over Nero and Poppea's love with a prediction that Nero will eventually beat Poppea, causing her to lose their child. She then commits suicide, leaving Nero to make Poppea his queen.

In a white-fur saloon set of lights and mirrors, clothed in Matalan-chic bold prints and colours, gold sandals, chains and belts, the cast execute the sordid tale with an untempered zeal and vivacity. Emperor Nero (Mezzo-Soprano Jessica Walker) adopted perfectly masculine mannerisms for the role; firmly holding Poppea under his hand; mouth opened in lust, demonstrating the sharp sneer of the will to power or flinging from passion to passion with intense, aggressive diction. The tension between him and Poppea added a new sensual potency to the shape of every phrase; the potent spark behind Nero's eyes lead the arch of each melodic line over the curves of Poppea's body.

In a pink gauze nightdress, Zoë Bonner made a playfully brazen Poppea, her flirtatious soprano melodies were vocally supple and rhythmically sharp. Ottone's (David Sheppard's) countertenor was beautifully dark and expressive although his tone was surprisingly thin. Seneca's (Martin Nelson's) slow, austere melodic lines, flowed with a rich resonance, and air of wisdom, although his performance is not for the faint hearted: he dies nobly for the state in an extremely convincing death-scene involving fake blood and a bath – in this performance, one audience member actually fainted.

The opera, at just over half the length of the original, was crisply cut to keep the listener engaged, the first half in particular was decidedly fast-paced. Monteverdi's original orchestration would have been a figured bass arrangement – the bare skeleton of the melody, harmony, and bass-line, for professionals who would know how to improvise around the given structures. In Silverman's new version the score is realised by a piano, double bass and saxophone. The timings of the vocal lines were kept straight, but in the instrumental parts rhythms were sometimes jazzed up, adding to the sexual tension by seductively drawing motifs out and then sharply snapping them back. Although the double bass and piano were always effective and rhythmically tight, the saxophone parts were often weak; some of the melodies during the arias were attractive in themselves, but could have gone further to interject, comment on and punctuate the vocal lines to pack more of a punch. In the recitative sections, the saxophone's isolated notes bluntly poked through the texture before hanging limply, dead and ineffective.

Another change to the renewed version is the interpolation of a new aria by Michael Nyman. In the way that singers in the baroque and classical periods would often change works to include pieces that showed off their particular vocal talents, Nyman's addition is an 'intervention aria' in which Ottavia morbidly predicts the fate of Poppea's and Nero's child. Although there was obviously a stylistic shift between this aria and the surrounding movements, it did not appear out of context. The texture was thicker, typical of Nyman's chordal style. The melodies were more lyrical, with a smoother, more stepwise curve than those notated by Monteverdi's pen.

Thus, Ravenhill's production has brought new life to age-old issues, issues pertinent to modern life and appropriate to the constraints of living within civilised society. Although in places his translation of the libretto was colloquial bordering sensationalist (Armalta- 'F*** Poppea, F*** Rome, and F*** this f****** army!') within his libretto there was a strong contemporary relevance and honest accessibility to each of the characters and their troubles. Each facet of passion, fate and responsibility was not just represented, but argued for through the performance; inflaming desire, adding crushing weight to the burden of duty, and illogical flight to the racing mind that flees from the heart's torment. Ravenhill's achievement is considerable, for a version of the opera that, more than many other more traditional interpretations, brings into lucidity the weaknesses of the tyrant that royalty robes as strength and communicates to the audience the full weight of the plot's humanity.

****1