REVIEW Monteverdi goes down a storm. . . even after delay

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The cast of L’incoronazione di Poppea. Photo: Matthew Williams-Elis.

L’incoronazione di Poppea, Longborough Festival Opera, Saturday, 28th July

Review by Preston Witts

WITH flashing lights and rumbles of thunder there was every possibility it was part of the drama – especially with all those references on stage to “the gods” and “the heavens”.

But the moment we knew it was something else was when the surtitles suddenly stopped and the stage lighting went haywire.

However, like the real troupers that they are, the singers and instrumentalists on the first night of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at Longborough Festival Opera on 28th July continued as if nothing had happened until the stage manager walked on, shouting “Stop! Stop!”

The artists, directed from the harpsichord by their hugely professional conductor Jeremy Silver, had been doing battle for several minutes with a cacophony of hailstones, thunderclaps and lightning flashes until their heroic endeavours were eventually brought to a halt. Even the hardiest performers can’t win against a ferocious electric storm…

The performance of L’incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea) had begun at 5pm as scheduled.

But after about an hour the roof of the opera house started to rattle from the heavy rain and hail, there was the sound of thunder, and then the lightning temporarily put paid to the electrics.

After the stage manager’s order to stop, there was brief discussion before it was announced that the 90-minute meal interval would be taken early – at about 6.10pm instead of 6.30 pm – so that the technicians could make a start on rectifying the problem. (The performance eventually restarted shortly before the point where it had been stopped in Act 2 and there was a 20-minute break between the second and third acts.)

No-one seemed remotely put out by the interruption to the proceedings and the musicians, cast and crew were duly applauded for their dedication and professionalism.

As for the opera itself, it was a dream of a performance.

Monteverdi (1567-1643) is a famous pioneer of opera as an art form, with his most notable work in this genre, L’Orfeo, produced as early as 1607.

He is seen as an important bridge between Renaissance music and the Baroque period and L’incoronazione di Poppea was given its first performance in Venice in the last year of the composer’s life – 42 years before the birth of those two giants of the Baroque, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel.

The opera is an ingenious work of fiction built upon historical fact – an intertwining of artistic licence involving the gods and goddesses of ancient myth with the true life story of the Roman emperor Nero’s affair with, and eventual marriage to, his mistress Poppea. (Interestingly, these events were taking place around the year 60 AD, when Queen Boudicca was on the rampage against Roman rule in Britain.)

The music is, of course, a seamless flow of early Baroque brilliance which was performed superbly by the singers and the small orchestral ensemble under Jeremy Silver’s guiding hand.

Especially excellent were the American soprano Sofia Troncoso as Poppea and the Russian mezzo-soprano Maria Ostroukhova as Ottavia, Nero’s doomed wife at the time of his affair with Poppea.

In fact, every member of the 16-strong cast gave great performances, particularly the British mezzo-soprano Anna Harvey as Nero and the bass-baritone Matthew Buswell as the philosopher Seneca.

It was a genuine ensemble production for which both Jeremy Silver and the director, Jenny Miller, can be proud.

This was the final opera in Longborough’s 2018 season.

Next year the festival will be the first with the new artistic director Polly Graham, daughter of Longborough founders Martin and Lizzie Graham.

It will begin with Das Rheingold, the first opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, conducted by the great Wagnerian Anthony Negus.

The other operas will be Anna Bolena, by Donizetti, with Jeremy Silver at the helm; Mozart’s Don Giovanni, conducted by Thomas Blunt; and La Calisto by Francesco Cavalli, under the baton of Lesley Anne Sammons.