Michael Tanner

Out of sympathy

L’incoronazione di Poppea (Glyndebourne), Der Rosenkavalier (English National Opera)

L’incoronazione di Poppea (Glyndebourne), Der Rosenkavalier (English National Opera)

Monteverdi’s last opera L’incoronazione di Poppea was the first opera I saw at Glyndebourne, in 1962. I saw it there again in 1984, once more ‘realised’ by Raymond Leppard, but in a version more complete and somewhat more austerely orchestrated than the first time. And now it has its third production, with Emmanuelle Haim conducting (presumably she is responsible, too, for the fairly lavish orchestration) and Robert Carsen directing. In 1962 the opera itself was a revelation, one of the most thrilling evenings I have spent in an opera house. In 1984, with Peter Hall indulging his wife Maria Ewing, and Leppard having lost the courage of his convictions without acquiring any new ones, it was moderately enjoyable, but altogether without the shock value which is surely an inbuilt feature of it — pace Wagner and the Ring, you can have both Love and Power in unlimited quantities, at least for the duration of the opera. The new production is depressingly low-key, more interesting at the beginning than the end, and from which both musical and emotional energy leak as it proceeds.

The main trouble is that there is no one among the main characters with whom you can feel any sympathy, except for Nerone’s rejected Empress Ottavia, sung and acted with force and dignity by Tamara Mumford; but her appearances are few and short. The central appalling couple, which it is the achievement of the work to lure us into sympathy with, are presented as wholly unattractive, and sung without warmth. The action is all busily organised by the goddess Amore, but love doesn’t really enter into it; at most Nerone and Poppea feel intermittent lust for one another. Carsen makes him, with no warrant from the text, more interested in gay S&M games with his male courtiers.

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