“I apologise to those who anticipated togas, or 17th-century Venice”, writes James Conway in the programme notes to his production of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, currently running at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre in London. The translation of the opera’s story of power and lust from its original Roman setting to Stalin’s Russia was what attracted me to the production in the first place. Conway’s reasoning behind the decision is thorough: he writes that “Stalin’s bruising reign convinced me that this was a place in which Nerone might appear... From which Ottone, Drusilla, Ottavia and Seneca might suddenly disappear, and in which all might live cheek by jowl in a sort of family nightmare”. And so, we find the story refracted through a distinctively Russian prism.

© Chris Christodoulou
© Chris Christodoulou

The heroine, Poppea, so often characterised as a power-hungry seductress (here played by Katherine Crompton), was portrayed as a sort of Lolita-like victim figure, imprisoned in the oppressive walls of Samal Blak’s imposing set. Her exploitation by the powerful Nerone was clear to see, as she yielded to the every whim of the imposing and authoritative leader, played in Soviet military costume by Annie Fredriksson. Seneca, the source of wisdom and dissidence, resembled the mature Tolstoy, in a peasant shirt, clutching his texts, while Ottavia, Nerone’s abandoned, scheming wife, was played by Fiona Mackenzie, who resembled a pre-revolutionary Chekhovian aristocrat: perhaps a hint at her initial passivity in the face of her straying husband, or her impending demise. The opera begins with the three soloists – Fortune, Love and Virtue – hanging Soviet-style red banners bearing their titles, over the balcony of the set. The three soloists were dressed as Pioneers – the Soviet equivalent of Scouts, and in this context, a witty solution to the human embodiment of ideals: after all, the Pioneers could be seen as the embodiment of youthful idealism under Soviet rule (albeit one allied with Soviet ideology, rather than these non-political entities).

The music came together well, with a well-balanced, and well-coordinated relationship between the soloists and the ensemble under Michael Rosewell’s leadership. The female soloists were particularly strong in this production. Katherine Crompton sang with great expressivity as Poppea, while mezzo-soprano Annie Fredriksson’s powerful Nerone was extremely impressive, with a strong tone throughout the register. Drusilla, played with conviction and empathy by Hannah Sandison, also put in a memorable performance as the unlucky-in-love rival to Poppea. Of the male singers, Vasili Karpiak made a particularly strong impression with his brief appearance as a Soldier – his bell-like, clear tenor tone caught my attention straight away.

All credit to James Conway for his bold interpretation of this work. I’m all for interpretations which encourage us reconsider classic works in a new light. However, despite the compelling performances of many of the principal performers, my attention was not always held by the particular world created on stage. The two-storey set, with its porous grated floor and its mobile walls, effectively encapsulated an oppressive crucible ruled by a culture of surveillance and betrayal, evoking the Soviet-era communal apartment. While this oppressive setting was effective in illuminating Conway’s new take on the opera’s power relations, the production perhaps suffered a little from lack of visual variation. The brown walls of the set created great intensity within the world created by the cast, but it might have been nice to have a more aesthetically appealing set, to offset the slow pacing of Monteverdi’s opera.

Poppea’s characterisation as an underage and naive victim of Nerone’s absolute power was an intriguing one, and made for uncomfortable viewing. This re-characterisation accentuates the power of Nerone: he can have whoever he wants, no matter how young. However, when all those around Poppea appear to be enraptured with an underage heroine, we find ourselves in a much darker, and more sinister world than the story originally implies. As a result our sympathy for the lovesick Ottone is also reduced. The tenderness of the couple’s eventual union – in the beautifully sung duet between Poppea and Nerone – is undercut by the fact that Poppea is still too young. This was a bold updating of a Baroque classic which gave much food for thought. However, the darkness of this Soviet setting could have been enlivened by a lighter touch in places.