Sunday, 26 October 2014

Giovanni Battista Moroni

(Royal Academy, London, until 25 January 2015)

He's a familiar sight in the National Gallery: a young tailor distracted in the middle of his work. Resting his scissors on the table for a moment he glances up, as if you've just wandered into his workroom, half-inquisitive, half-challenging. His clothes are simple but well-made, showing off his craft: his cream doublet is elaborately pinked and finely-detailed lace peeks out at collar and cuffs. In a moment his assessing gaze will shade into something more specific: a frown at being disturbed, perhaps, or a welcoming smile, but for now he's captured in that split second where everything is still possible: a moment of infinite potential. Giovanni Battista Moroni, a 16th-century painter from Bergamo, was a master at conveying that unsettling quality of naturalism. Artists throughout the Renaissance had been praised for the 'speaking likeness', the kind of portrait where the sitter seems on the cusp of talking to you, but Moroni's portraits go beyond that. His sitters not only seem to be aware of your presence: they seem to watch and weigh you, judging your quality. To look at one of his pictures feels like stepping into a dialogue with the past.

Moroni was born in the early 1520s, more or less at the time that Raphael died and only a few years after Leonardo's death in France; Michelangelo was forty-five when he was born. It's strange to think that he was so early: his portraits, in particular, have little of the Renaissance about them. If Moroni's works echo any of the great masters, it's Titian, who was some thirty years older than him; but we're not sure if they ever actually met. In a way, Moroni invites comparisons with later painters born shortly before his own death: his psychological intensity would be echoed in Rubens's portraits, and the pared-down, freeze-frame quality of his compositions would be developed more famously by a painter who was only eight or nine when Moroni died and who'd been born a mere sixteen miles away from Bergamo in the little town of Caravaggio. Moroni himself trained with Moretto da Brescia, a successful artist whose works are still very much of the Renaissance, but who also painted penetrating portraits like that of Fortunato Martinengo Cesaresco (National Gallery), which must have had quite an impact on his young pupil.

The exhibition doesn't include every picture by Moroni because that would be impracticable and, besides, it's in the Sackler Galleries so there isn't enough space; but what it does do, rather well I thought, is to give us a rounded picture of Moroni's artistic output. The portraits are his most memorable and successful works, but the show makes the point that he also received commissions for religious pictures. These are where we see much more of Moroni's Renaissance heritage coming through and we see explicit examples of the young artist reacting to the past: his Trinity, for example, painted in his early thirties, which is a direct reworking of a composition by Lorenzo Lotto executed thirty years earlier (conveniently hanging alongside it here). Of the two, I found Lotto's original more attractive. It has greater softness and mysticism, whereas there's something hard-edged and less fluid about Moroni's: something a bit too didactic and a bit less suggestive. But that's telling: Moroni had spent some time in Trent at exactly the time the Council was laying down new rules about the role of art in promoting Catholic doctrines and religious narratives. He is more accomplished in his striking portraits where we see his sitters in contemplation of the Madonna and Child or the Baptism of Christ. These aren't like the Renaissance sacra conversazioni where patrons implausibly turn up kneeling, eavesdropping on the Madonna and saints. On the contrary, the sitters are engaged in the kind of religious meditation encouraged in the Counter-Reformation world, and it's as if we are somehow miraculously seeing with their inward eye and sharing their visions.

Portrait of Prospero Alessandri  |  Portrait of a gentleman contemplating the Baptism of Christ  |
Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro (detail)
But the most spectacular aspect of Moroni's work will always be his portraiture. The room of aristocratic portraits in the exhibition is simply ravishing: every picture is a masterpiece and every sitter has an air of enigma sufficient to inspire a novel. And the fabric painting...! Indeed, if you're liable to get bored by me rhapsodising about Renaissance costume, I'd just cut your losses now and skip to the last paragraph, because here there are enough soft velvets and cool satins, gold braids, dagged and frayed edges, pleated cuffs and blackwork collars to keep me going for hours. My personal highlight in this room was the Portrait of Giovanni Gerolamo Grumelli, commonly known as The Man in Pink for obvious reasons. He wears a splendid rose-coloured suit with doublet and hose embroidered with floral motifs in silver thread; seed pearls and braid decorate his knee garters and his shoes are of slashed rose velvet; even the blackwork on his collar and cuffs is pink. It's important to remember that at this date pink was considered to be quite a manly, virile colour: it was a shade of crimson, the high-status colour of senatorial robes, and thus a perfectly appropriate colour for well-born young men. 

And indeed, Grumelli looks like the kind of man it would be unwise to cross. He glances out at you, wary and considering, perhaps with a hint of mischief in the slight tilt of his eyebrow. He stands in a blaze of Renaissance grandeur among the fragments of antiquity, with a new dawn just showing above the crumbling, ivy-covered wall. He's twenty-four years old and the world is at his feet. And one of the gifts the world offered him, a year after this portrait was painted, was Isotta Brembati, whom he married after the death of his first wife. She hangs beside him in the exhibition: a shrewd and redoubtable lady. Indeed, she seems more than a match for her pretty young husband. She wears a marten fur as protection against death in childbirth (is that how Grumelli's first wife died?), but the most striking thing about the portrait is her gown, in stunning green and gold brocade, set off with an unexpectedly frivolous fan of pink and white ostrich-feathers. And her jewels are gorgeous too: the light dances on the curve of her pearls and plays in the depths of the garnet beads around her neck. She looks every inch the prosperous matron: it seems that neither she nor her husband felt the need to advertise her talents as a poetess.

If you crossed Isotta, you might pay for it with a sonnet or two, but some of Moroni's sitters could deal with you in a decidedly more conclusive kind of way. His portrait of Gabriel de la Cueva is a wonderful example of coiled power: this Spanish grandee served as Governor of Milan for seven years from 1564 and Moroni painted him four years before his appointment. The man we see here is an ambitious, worldly courtier waiting for his moment: he has a Spanish taste for luxurious understatement and his doublet is embroidered black-on-black, that most expensive of colours, while the crimson embroidered velvet of his hose is slashed to show silk beneath. He appears calm, even at ease. Unlike young Grumelli he doesn't pose: he leans back, feigning nonchalance, against a plinth. But the sword at his side is no aristo plaything but a serious piece of kit, and he stares out at us with calculating, narrowed eyes; if we needed any further reason to be wary, his motto on the plinth would give it to us: 'Aqui esto sin temor y de la muerte no he pavor' [I am here without fear and I have no dread of death]. Attaboy! 

He's matched for swagger by Faustino Avogadro, who hangs here beside his wife Lucia Albani Avogadro (both usually found in the National Gallery as well). Faustino is determined to show us his martial glory: he wears a buff jerkin over chain mail and his very serious-looking sword denotes him a warrior, even before you notice the decidedly over-the-top tournament helm propped on the side with its profusion of plumes. Usually you'd be tempted to dismiss such a man as a swaggerer, the kind who tells endless stories of deeds that probably never happened. But Faustino was a dangerous sort. By marrying Lucia he'd got caught up in her family's feud against the Brembati (Isotta's family), which culminated in 1563 when one of the Brembati nobles was murdered in church. Faustino's servant was arrested as one of the murderers, which made it clear enough where the guilt actually lay; Faustino and Lucia fled Bergamo and went into exile. For all his posturing, Faustino's end was rather undistinguished: he apparently fell into a well while drunk (although, having read too many novels, I can't help wondering whether he fell or was pushed).

Gabriel de la Cueva (full portrait and detail)  |  Giovanni Gerolamo Grumelli (detail and full portrait)
All these faces are full of stories and if I said all that I wanted to say about each one, we'd be here forever, so I'm going to limit myself to just a few more. In the following room are a few more intimate portraits, always with the same degree of psychological acuity, among which is the gorgeous Portrait of a girl of the Redetti family. This child, who can't be more than three years old, is dressed in a miniature version of adult's clothing: black-on-gold brocade, with a pleated ruff and cuffs and a string of pearls around her neck. More pearls are twined in her hair and she wears a little earring with three seed pearls set in it; you can just glimpse the coral bracelet she wears as protection against the evil eye. But what's most remarkable about this little girl is her air of self-possession. She is dressed like an adult; she has the cautious gaze of an adult; and yet Moroni doesn't make her look remotely adult-like, in contrast to so many painters at this period who had immense trouble painting children. She must be one of the most delightful painted children of the century.

The final room displays some of Moroni's later portraits, including my beloved Tailor. These lack some of the glamour of the showy aristos in the earlier room, but Moroni continues to probe into his sitters' souls. His portrait of Antonio Navagero is delightful, though probably not for the reason the patron intended: Navagero's sober fur-trimmed gown reveals a suit of surprisingly tight crimson satin, with a short doublet, narrow breeches and the most insistent codpiece in the entire show: an ensemble which sits rather ill at ease with his cheerfully ruddy, round-cheeked face and the threads of silver in his beard. Despite the surviving descriptions of Navagero as an 'intelligent' and 'prudent' man, who served with 'care and diligence' as podestà in Venice, you can't help thinking that he'd be the kind of dinner guest who'd drink more than his due, tell riotous stories and end up trying to chase the maidservants. Poor Navagero. A more distinguished picture is presented by Giovanni Gerolamo Albani, which shows Faustino Avogadro's father-in-law and fellow conspirator against the Brembati family. This magnificent old gentleman wears a sumptuous amount of ermine and his clothes are all black - which, remember, was the most expensive dye - while a jewelled crucifix hangs round his neck. Unlike every other sitter in the show he meets our gaze squarely and without wariness. He has been distracted from reading his book; he seems about to rise from his chair; but for now he just studies us with the politely indifferent air of a patriarch who fears nothing. He must have already known that Moroni would do justice to him, because the portrait was commissioned under flattering circumstances. Giovanni had (so they say) been in Venice, where he'd visited Titian and tried to commission a portrait. On hearing that he came from Bergamo, Titian had asked in some surprise why Giovanni wished to commission a picture from him; he advised him to get one from the talented Moroni instead. It's a good story and probably did Moroni no end of good when it circulated in Bergamo. Personally I don't believe it for a minute, because Titian was a canny fellow and I can't imagine him casually turning away trade; but it makes a good tale.

And Moroni deserved such praise. Every time I go to the National Gallery I stop for a moment in front of his portraits - they're on my personal highlights tour - and I really hope this exhibition will introduce him to a new audience. With his realism, his dazzling technique and his perceptiveness, Moroni is one of those painters who feels startlingly modern and whose pictures erase the five centuries that separate us from him. He deserves to be better known and I urge you, if you're in London, to visit the RA and to encounter him for yourselves - and to make the acquaintance of this gallery of lords, ladies, clerics and rogues who populate his stunning portraits.

Portrait of a girl of the Redetti family  |  Portrait of Giovanni Gerolamo Albani (detail)  |  Portrait of Antonio Navagero

Saturday, 25 October 2014

'Tis Pity She's a Whore

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, until 7 December 2014)

Revenge is all the ambition I aspire;
To that I'll climb or fall: my blood's on fire.
(Soranzo, Act V, Scene 2)

Say what you like about Baroque operas (or, indeed, George R.R. Martin), but nobody does dysfunctional families quite like the Jacobeans. The Globe's winter season opens with John Ford's play, written around 1630, which takes place in 17th-century Parma. Here the young scholar Giovanni is in torment. He desires his sister, the beautiful Annabella, but despite the advice of his former tutor, the Friar, he sees no way to cure his illicit passion. Annabella herself is being courted by three suitors: the swaggering Roman soldier Grimaldi; the nobleman Bergetto, who has the promise of a vast inheritance but not a brain in his head; and the handsome gentleman Soranzo, whose courteous manner masks a darker temper. Yet not one of these men pleases Annabella. When her beloved brother comes to her in an emotional tumult and spills out his confession of love, she's disturbed: first because she knows she should be disturbed, and then because his words find an answering echo in her own heart. They become lovers in secret, but their idyll can't last for long. In the streets of Parma, the rivalry between Annabella's suitors flashes into open violence. It's no fault of hers: it's all down to Soranzo's jilted lover Hippolita, who has come to claim her dues from him, with her estranged and disguised husband hot on her heels, eager for revenge. As the cogs and wheels of vengeance creak into motion around them, Annabella discovers that she is pregnant and the lovers realise she must be married off to hide their shame. Soranzo is the lucky man. At first he's delighted to finally have his heart's desire; but when he discovers that his new wife is already with child, he's consumed by fury and wounded pride. His servant Vasques, his faithful dark shadow, takes it upon himself to find out Annabella's secret. But they have reckoned without Giovanni's own despair: deprived of his sister and his lover, he is pushed ever closer to the brink of madness and begins to plan a bloody campaign of his own.

I hadn't seen one of Ford's plays before, although I'll be seeing another fairly soon, as the Globe are also performing The Broken Heart this season. 'Tis Pity is an interesting beast. It has much in common with The Duchess of Malfi: illicit love, Italian debauchery, corrupt churchmen and a tendency to flood the stage with blood; but it's funnier and less extreme than Webster's masterpiece. There's no mental torture, gory dumbshows or dances of madmen here, and there also aren't any overly imaginative forms of death (poisoned books, beavers, gloves etc.). Mind you, there are more than enough stabbings to make up for it, and there's one particularly grisly moment - spoilers ahead, obviously - when Giovanni surges into the final scene drenched in blood with what looked (from my seat in the balcony) like a very real heart impaled on his dagger. Nice. 

And then of course there's the xenophobic theme at the heart of virtually every Jacobean tragedy: basically, that you can't trust the Italians or Spanish as far as you can throw them. (Sorry guys.) The murderous Vasques is a Spaniard; and the highest praise he can find for his master Soranzo, as he commits himself to vengeance, is an admiring tribute from one untrustworthy nation to another: 'Now,' he says approvingly, 'you begin to turn Italian!' (Act V, Scene 4). And yet Ford doesn't take the simple route of mere sensationalism: it's not just a case of "Incest! Murder! Stabbings! Blood everywhere!" It's slightly more subtle than that, because he makes Giovanni and Annabella surprisingly sympathetic. Their confessions of love for one another are endearingly halting and awkward: they are star-crossed lovers, rather than monsters. Their love is given some beautiful poetry: Giovanni sounds like any other infatuated Renaissance youth when, in the aftermath of their first kiss, he swears breathlessly that 'I would not change this minute for Elysium' (Act I, Scene 2). 

Annabella (Fiona Button) and Giovanni (Max Bennett) swear their vows  |  The horror begins to dawn on Annabella
The criticism first: I was underwhelmed by the costumes. The Globe has a smashing costume department and I couldn't help feeling it was a bit of a cop-out to have the cast wearing pseudo-Jacobean outfits assembled from modern dress. The men wore doublets with modern shirts underneath; Annabella was in a frothy strapless gown; Giovanni seemed to be wearing sneakers; and everything was topped off with wheel ruffs. It looked like something you'd see in a creative and brilliant student production, not in a theatre which surely has cupboards overflowing with 17th-century finery. I've read that the director wanted something a bit more contemporary, but in that case why not just go the whole hog and have it in modern dress? Yes, I'm grumbling, but I felt a bit disappointed that they didn't go to town a tiny bit more. However... A play's success rests (mainly) not on the costumes but on the cast and, as ever, the Globe turned out a fantastic bunch of actors. There were two familiar faces there, neither of whom I recognised at first, but it can't be coincidence that I picked them both out as among my favourites. 

One was James Garnon, whom I've previously seen in The Duchess of MalfiMuch Ado and Richard IIIHere he took on the dual role of Bergetto and the Cardinal, and the former was a stroke of comic genius. Wide-eyed, good-natured and probably slightly inbred, this Bergetto was the classic aristocratic English twit, and Garnon was having a ball with him. He's great to watch and he also handles the language remarkably easily. It's true: much of his dialogue as Bergetto was in prose, but he still managed to make 17th-century English sound fresh and conversational. The other familiar face was Philip Cumbus, whom I last saw as a gauche but endearing Claudio in Much Ado. Here he played Vasques with a good deal of scheming relish, making his entrance in the second scene with a very commendable piece of double-handed swordplay. Other verbal bouquets go to Morag Siller, for her garrulous, chatty and whip-smart nurse Putana and to Michael Gould for a very sombre turn as Giovanni's tutor the Friar. He looked great in the role and was chilling in the scene where he conjures up the torments of Hell to frighten Annabella into marriage. The incestuous siblings themselves were played by Fiona Button and Max Bennett. Button gave Annabella an attractive inner steel and intelligence, and managed to convey the gradual disintegration of this young woman's confidence as the full horror of her position creeps over her. Bennett was an earnest Giovanni: slightly arrogant and childishly possessive, he seemed to lack his sister's quick understanding, and his final descent into madness culminated in a terrifying rampage that was all the more shocking because it was so illogical. 

It's certainly a very promising opening to the season and made for a rather full-blooded Saturday evening: incest, murder, destruction and a pile of corpses, followed by the cast's traditional merry dance to round off the performance. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, despite my little gripe about the costumes, and I genuinely think the Sam Wanamaker can be recommended regardless of production or cast. It's always such a magical experience: the painted ceiling; soft candlelight from chandeliers and sconces; live music from the gallery; the intimacy of the space... it's just an unparalleled delight. With only a couple of hundred seats clustered tight around the stage, you can hear every word, every breath; the acoustics are splendid. I can't even begin to imagine how fabulous it's going to be to hear arias sung in that space: Farinelli and L'Ormindo will be unbelievable

Max Bennett  |  Fiona Button  |  James Garnon  |  Michael Gould  |  Morag Siller

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Giulio Cesare: Georg Frideric Handel (1724)

(Glyndebourne, 2005; directed by William Christie, available from Amazon)

«««« ½

One thing's for sure. Handel certainly didn't imagine anything quite like this. With zeppelins hovering over the Alexandrian harbour in the final act and Bollywood-style dance routines thrown into the arias, this production is joyously exuberant and thoroughly addictive. It was the first time I'd watched or heard the opera and it was the perfect introduction: indeed, I ended up feeling quite jealous of the people who'd been able to see it in the flesh.

For anyone similarly unfamiliar with Handel's operas, the plot focuses on the arrival of Julius Caesar with his army in Egypt as an occupying force (for consistency's sake, I'll refer to him as Cesare). He is greeted by an unwelcome gift from Egypt's ruler Tolomeo (Ptolemy): the severed head of his old enemy Pompey, which might suit Cesare's political aims but proves to be immensely embarrassing in a diplomatic sense. The situation is worsened by the fact that Cesare is also greeted by Pompey's widow Cornelia and her brooding young son Sesto, whose horror at Tolomeo's treachery turns into a clamouring for revenge. Vowing to satisfy them, Cesare is forced into hostile relations with the young prince (although no doubt it's useful to have a pretext to remove him). For his part, Tolomeo has never had any intentions of working with the Romans: he and his general Achilla are simply biding their time until they can reclaim their country. However, the Romans haven't counted on the ambition of Tolomeo's capable, canny sister Cleopatra, who believes the throne is rightfully hers and who is locked in a power struggle with her overbearing and debauched brother. Coming to Cesare's camp in disguise as the courtier Lydia, Cleopatra wins his heart and secures his promises of assistance. She then sets her efforts to ensnaring the Roman general body and soul but, to her surprise, finds herself falling in love with Cesare (or, at least, with the might of Rome). And so the fate of Egypt is to be decided: not by a benevolent occupying army, but by internecine war between brother and sister, with the greatest general of the Empire tipping the balance.

Everything about the production is visually arresting: the action is split between the sober colonial sitting-room of Cesare's camp, with its slatted French windows and fez-wearing servants, and the sumptuous Arabian-Nights fantasy of the Egyptian palace, in which Tolomeo and Cleopatra play out their ambitions in a fairyland of coloured drapes. The harbour of Alexandria is a constant presence in the background, brought to life by a masterstroke of Baroque staging: the old trick of three horizontal rollers, painted blue and carved with ripples, which are turned to suggest the rising and falling of the waves. Throughout the production the harbour plays host to a brief history of modern shipping, from the flagships on which Cesare's army arrives, to the zeppelins and battleships of Act III and the ocean liner sedately crossing the stage in the finale. It's precisely this playful quality which makes the show so much fun to watch. But the set can be sober as well. Indeed, this production perfectly handles that difficult switch from comedy to tragedy which has stymied some other operas: Sesto's fury is played out on an empty stage in front of a colossal fragmentary head of Pompey, looming above the harbour (you can see this on the DVD cover). It's immensely effective. Costumes fall anywhere between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, although the primary feel is rather Edwardian-colonial: Cornelia turns up in bustle and lace with a rather splendid hat, and Sesto skulks around in a Norfolk jacket; the Roman soldiers wear red uniforms and pith helmets (Curio wears a kilt).

Cornelia (Patricia Bardon) and Sesto (Angelika Kirchschlager)  |  Cesare (Sarah Connolly)  |  Cleopatra (Danielle de Niese)
I didn't feel there was a weak link in the cast - and I'm judging them on their performances rather than their singing (although that was very good), because in something like this you can sing as well as you like but it needs a certain something extra to make it an engaging show. And boy, do they pull out all the stops. Patricia Bardon's Cornelia is the picture of matronly dignity, with a superb self-possession, while Angelika Kirchschlager makes a smouldering Sesto, visibly maturing from schoolboy to fiery freedom fighter in the course of the production, and managing to convey earnest, knock-kneed gaucheness in every fibre. Rachid Ben Abdeslam plays Nireno for laughs, cranking up the campness, but turns in an impressive vocal display: his performance of his aria Chi perde un momento was an absolute joy. His fellow sidekick Achilla is played with athletic grace by Christopher Maltman: I'd heard him sing before but never seen him and I certainly hadn't expected him to be quite so... rugged. He exudes quiet, intelligent menace: more dangerous by far than his frivolous master Tolomeo and always looking out for the benefit to himself. As for Tolomeo... well, I have a friend who is a big champion of Christophe Dumaux, so I was keen to see him in action, and he delivered a wonderful turn, full of bitchy, petulant tyranny. Here is a puppet king convinced of his own significance - and Dumaux was partially responsible for my favourite aria of the entire piece: the superbly-staged Va tacito e nascosto. Here Cesare faces up to Tolomeo, subtly sparring with him, testing his weaknesses, and it's a beautiful concept, as the two leaders pace back and forth, literally entering into the dance of diplomacy. With each repetition, Tolomeo is backed up by more of his supporters and staff, reinforcing his position, while Cesare - proud, powerful and self-confident - serenely weaves his way through the massed forces of Egyptian bureaucracy like a knife through butter. I love its poise, the delicate negotiation of the choreography and the way that, even as Tolomeo tries to prove his strength, he effectively reveals the fundamental weakness of his rule. It's simply brilliant - and fast-tracked an aria I'd never heard before into my current top ten.

And the two principals were best of all. There's no doubt that if you want someone to play a Classical-era seductress, Danielle de Niese is the one to call. Her performance as Cleopatra is full-blooded and energetic: she throws herself into the role with such evident relish that I was completely won over. I've seen discussions about whether or not she has the 'right' voice for Handel, although I've yet to understand how one judges that, but going to the theatre is all about spectacle and verve and she's better at that than any other singer I've seen to date. Moreover, being unfamiliar with the opera, I really appreciated her talent for storytelling. She's at her best in the gloriously exuberant dance routines and comic moments, but she also really impressed me in her heart-rending Se pietà di me non senti. Such a performance could easily overpower the stage, but fortunately de Niese is up against a Cesare more than capable of matching her panache. Yes, my friends. Sarah Connolly strikes again.

"We'll always have Alexandria"  |  Cleopatra works her magic  |  The cast definitely throw themselves into it
It isn't just that Connolly makes a scarily convincing man: that's even more true here than as Nerone, with her slicked-back hair and her ability to convey masculinity without actually swaggering. She has an innate gift for comedy which obviously didn't come through quite so much in Poppea (which doesn't exactly get them rolling in the aisles, does it?). I've already talked about Va tacito, and part of that aria's charm is the way that Connolly breaks the fourth wall with her ironic glances out at the audience. Her Cesare is effortlessly in control: like a lion with a mouse, he's merely toying with this little prince and he wants us to know it. Another of her finest moments is in Al lampo dell' armi, to which Dehggial had kindly sent me a link beforehand, and which shows off the production's tongue-in-cheek attitude to the full, as well as giving ample proof of the chemistry between the two principals. It's one of the two most convincing operatic romances I've seen so far (the other being the Barna-Sabadus/Baráth pairing in Elena). Indeed, there are moments when Connolly seems to be having way too much fun... Quite simply, I've now decided that she can do no wrong. I will watch her in anything and, if you need proof of that, I've actually volunteered to sit through five hours of Wagner in December just because she's in it (Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera, if you're interested). The things I do for art...

When sending me the link to Al lampo dell' armi Dehggial warned me that I wouldn't ever be able to accept anyone else in the role of Cesare. That may well be the case - though I'm still keen to see other interpretations - but the whole production is so delightful, so energetic and so irreverent, without, somehow, losing the spirit of the original, that I'm not sure whether any other Giulio Cesare could top it for sheer joie de vivre. It's a real treat to learn about opera by starting off with the crème de la crème, but it does mean I'm being hopelessly spoiled for everything I'm going to see in the future.

On which note, I open the floor: which other DVDs offer a 'best of the best' approach? If I'm going to be spoiled, I might as well do it properly.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Brethren: Robert Merle

(published by Pushkin Press, £12.99, or from Amazon)

««« ½

Fortunes of France: Book I

First published in 1977, The Brethren was followed by a whole series of novels which trace the fortunes of the de Siorac family in late 16th-century France. The French editions have been tremendously successful and Pushkin published this English translation of the first volume earlier this summer. I was delighted to be invited to review it, partly because it was compared to Dumas and Dunnett, but primarily because the blurb included the word 'swashbuckling' and that was too much to resist. There hasn't been enough swashbuckling around here recently. This must be rectified.

Jean de Siorac and his close friend Jean de Sauveterre have earned wealth and renown in the French army but, when de Sauveterre is wounded, they decide it is time to withdraw from the forces and make a life for themselves as country gentlemen. With three of their soldiers they go south to de Siorac's native region of Périgord, where they acquire the château of Mespech, near the town of Sarlat. In so doing, the two men find themselves drawn into the web of local rivalries, friendships and obligations. Although some of their neighbours prove to be friendly - such as the de Caumont family, who provide de Siorac with his pretty wife Isabelle - others threaten to throw a hostile shadow over them - such as the ambitious Baron de Fontenac, who had hoped to swallow Mespech into his own lands. But the two Jeans don't just have to negotiate the political landscape: there's also the prickly question of religion, for these captains are Huguenots, followers of Calvin's teachings, and that's no easy thing in a close-knit local community where Catholic resentment against outsiders runs strong. It's a religious struggle that's enacted even within the walls of Mespech, as de Siorac's wife Isabelle is a devout Catholic and her husband an increasingly obdurate Protestant. The book follows the establishment of this little community at Mespech, with its soldiers and servants, nurses, maids and tenants, and much of its appeal lies in the description of how these sprawling 16th-century households worked, when the term 'family' extended beyond blood relations to dependants and all manner of hangers-on. But, even as Mespech grows, clouds gather on the horizon: the spectres of plague and drought and, more dreadful and bloody still, the prospect of religious civil war.

There's much I enjoyed about the book. It has an endearing narrator in Pierre, the younger son of de Siorac, who is writing the story at a much later date and frequently ends up referring to his father's Book of Reason, which seems to be a family chronicle crossed with an account book. Thanks to Pierre we get a vivid picture of the two captains who have dominated his childhood: de Siorac, larger-than-life, vivacious and all-too-ready to be distracted by feminine wiles; and de Sauveterre, serious and devout, a professed bachelor. Pierre himself follows his father in being quite ready to have his head turned by pretty girls (and proves to be quite shockingly precocious in that respect), and his memories of the house at Mespech are enlivened by furtive adolescent flirtation. You really do get a sense of the affectionate ties that bind all the characters together and, at the same time, the way that everyone knows their place in the hierarchy: although Pierre admires and respects his parents, for example, he hasn't really been brought up by them and doesn't love them as much as he loves his wet-nurse who has raised him. And the novel is steeped in the everyday hard grind of early-modern country life: the haying, the need to defend home and family against bands of vagabonds or gypsies, and the bitter consequences of a poor harvest. As an historical aside, I was interested to see that the two Jeans - the 'Brethren' of the title - enter into a mutual adoption before buying Mespech: a phenomenon I'd read about in passing but never really looked into before. It's more than a business partnership: it's a way to cement friendship in a legally recognised way, by literally adopting one another as brothers and heirs, both under the law and in the eyes of society.

However, it does all have a strangely old-fashioned feel for a novel published in the late '70s. Occasionally rather detached, and tending towards description rather than action, it could easily have been written several decades earlier and there were times I found it slightly hard going. It is lightened here and there by some comic characters, such as the overly superstitious cook La Maligou, but even so it doesn't have quite the panache or humour of Dumas, or the gripping characterisation and playfulness of Dunnett. It also (as you might expect, given the subject) has a profound religious conviction underpinning all aspects of the story and I was most surprised to discover, in the author's preface, that he was actually Catholic, because he perfectly manages to convey the Protestant fervour of his protagonists to such an extent that I'd assumed it must betray his own feelings. That's a testament to his writing. But the strong religious element, plus the rather sedate and earnest style, reminded me much more of something like Kristin Lavransdatter than Dumas. 

It may well be that this novel simply lays out the foundation for the rest of the series and that, as time goes on and Pierre is freed from the sober influences of de Sauveterre, things will become a little sparkier. As it is I'm keen to read the next instalment and see how things go, but I feel I should stress that you may not find quite what you're expecting if you come to this looking for the next Dumas. Nevertheless it's an authoritative, sensitive and vivid picture of 16th-century France and it has a very convincing period quality to it, so for those who enjoy long, detailed historical sagas this might be just the ticket.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Monday, 13 October 2014

L'Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

(directed by William Christie with Les Arts Florissant, 2010; available from Amazon)


In the wake of the Barbican's semi-staged Poppea, I decided to have another go at the DVD of this 2010 version from the Teatro Real in Madrid, to see how the two productions compared. It had completely bewildered me first time round. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I enjoyed it much more now that I had a better appreciation of the opera and its context. There are certain elements that I think the Barbican did better, but the Madrid version, with its stellar cast, certainly throws a long shadow. It's staged, which is a big plus for me; but it completely overshadows the Barbican in one other important way as well.

And that's Danielle de Niese's Poppea. For me, the Barbican version was dominated by Nerone (which goes to show what an impact a really strong performance can have), but in this production the title character wrestles back the limelight with considerable aplomb; and the mood of the production changes as a result. De Niese seems to be a bit of a polarising force, judging by reviews I've seen on Amazon, but I thought she was splendid, with a rich and sensual voice that was perfect for the role. This, surely, is how Poppea should be: old enough to be conscious of her seductive power, but young enough to still have a kittenish grace about her and a playful, childish interaction with her beloved nurse. De Niese managed to get that juxtaposition just right: you could genuinely believe that she'd intoxicate an emperor. And she was particularly good at her interaction with Nerone: everything about her body language, her eyes, her expression, spoke of her (slightly baffling) passion for this man. You find yourself rooting for Poppea because she is so full of life, so instinctive, so driven by love, in contrast to the Empress Ottavia (Anna Bonitatibus), who lurks like a statue in her gloomy palace. The DVD gives a strong sense that the plot of the opera is driven by its female characters - at the Barbican, Nerone seemed slightly more in control and so the question was really whether he would succeed, rather than whether Poppea would succeed. That's different here. And it's actually precisely because de Niese's Poppea is so exuberantly, convincingly (calculatingly?) infatuated with Nerone that Jaroussky's responses feel a little detached and flat.

In this Madrid version, Nerone is a very different beast from Sarah Connolly's poised, authoritative tyrant at the Barbican. Maybe it's just that Jaroussky sounds and looks a little like an overgrown boy, but I definitely felt that his Nerone was very young and easily swayed. He's a petulant adolescent who's been married off to a much older woman and is chafing at the bit, lashing out from boredom. He's dangerous by caprice rather than design - which doesn't make him any less of a psychopath, but perhaps a less thrilling and disturbing one. As for the singing, there were several points where I felt that Jaroussky ends up pushing himself to go just a little bit higher than his comfort zone, and it shows. For much of the performance he pulls out all the stops with that lovely, clear, incongruously angelic voice, which helps to create the picture of a juvenile, inexperienced emperor; but there are moments when he becomes a little too shrill for my liking. He goes over the top in several ways, actually, and there are a few points where his acting turns into scenery-chewing; but then again, I suppose one might argue that, if you can't do that when playing the Emperor Nero, when can you do it?

Poppea (Danielle de Niese) and Nerone (Philippe Jaroussky)  |  A slightly more forgiving costume for Nerone in the final act
Ottone (Max Cencic) and his sprightly Drusilla (Ana Quintans)
All hinges on the closing Pur ti miro, however, and here it sounds gorgeous: sumptuous, romantic and much more intimate than other versions I've seen. De Niese's very rich and powerful voice is delicately offset by Jaroussky's purity and lightness and, while they may not have a strong physical chemistry, their voices match perfectly. (There's one point in the opera which I missed first time, but which really impressed me this time - alas I don't remember where - when de Niese finishes a line by holding a note and Jaroussky seamlessly picks up exactly the same note and carries on with it. So clever.) 

Going back to Pur ti miro... oh dear... I just find it terribly distracting to watch, though. It's the costumes. While clingy gold robes suit de Niese, they really, really don't do anything for Jaroussky, especially with that high neck and that undead make-up. And that's despite the fact that I suspect some kind of Byzantine influence, which I'd normally whole-heartedly applaud. Yes. Jaroussky has to put up with a lot in this production, but the primary cross he has to bear are his costumes which - let's face it - are absurd. (The one exception is the rather lovely Titian-pink Venetian-senator-style robe that he gets to wear in the final act, which I admired.) But, for the whole first act, he is swamped by an enormous, shapeless robe completely smothered in black feathers which, with his white face, dark lips and shadowed eyes, makes him look like a cross between a vampire and a very large raven. Feathers are not necessarily a bad thing of course and, if you want someone to stride around the stage in a massive feathered cloak then Jaroussky, with his stature, is probably your man. But it just doesn't quite work. The costumes and design as a whole are rather historically confused, in fact: this certainly isn't a production which prides itself on historical accuracy. There are Roman draped gowns, modern suits, a lot of metallic column-shaped robes, and some very scary leather shorts. Everything takes place on a simple set which is best described as Ancient Rome meets Mussolini. And yet, despite the peculiar mixture, the whole isn't quite as off-putting as it should be.

The rest of the cast are very good: I should devote a few lines to Max Emanuel Cencic's Ottone. He sings the role beautifully, in that unmistakable honeyed, gentle voice, but even Cencic on excellent form can't hide the fact that Ottone is basically a bit of a wet blanket. On first seeing the DVD, I'd been impressed by his acting; but I must say that, post-Barbican, I missed the greater liveliness and naturalism of Davies's interpretation. Cencic doesn't quite convince with his romantic volte-face at the end. His declarations are slightly stiff, sitting ill at ease with Ana Quintans's delightfully artless Drusilla. A special mention should also go to Robert Burt, who turned in a splendid performance as Arnalta: she's less of a pantomime dame than Andrew Tortise's version at the Barbican, and somehow more cuddly and mumsy. You could well believe that this Arnalta has nursed Poppea: the dynamic between them was very much like that between Juliet and her Nurse and I thought it added a lovely note to the production. Antonio Abete makes an imposing Seneca and his bulk and height offer a good counterpart to Jaroussky's slim, neurotic Nerone, but his voice is so very deep that it's almost colourless: with his sober stoic robes and the monochrome staging all around, it makes for quite heavy going. For all that, the effect works well: Seneca and the equally understated Ottavia look like two responsible adults adrift at a debauched student party.

Danielle de Niese's pitch-perfect Poppea  |  Ottone (Max Cencic) wrestles with his conscience  |  'Poppea who?' (The singing contest)
Talking of debauchery (and Jaroussky having to put up with things), this is probably one of the more memorable interpretations of the singing contest scene. Unlike the Barbican version, which started out as a bit of matey banter, and the Barcelona version, which is very hands-off and completely batty, this is seduction from the word go. It offers, deliberately or not, a reason why Nerone's passion for Poppea never really feels real. I think it surprised me so much first time round because Jaroussky generally comes across as an innocent, rather sexless kind of singer - the detached saint of Sant' Alessio or the arm's-length courtly lover of Artaserse - the result of his voice type and his choirboy looks. But the scene works, dramatically and musically, and it plays into the opera's broader interpretation of Nerone as quite a weak figure, in thrall to those around him. The duet is given a much more languid pacing than I've seen elsewhere and Mathias Vidal's Lucano switches beautifully between more robust sections and moments of exquisite, inviting yearning. He throws in a particularly pretty piece of ornamentation on one of his 'cantiam's although, it's true, you might be forgiven for missing that detail on first watching it.

There are some noticeable differences between this production and that I saw at the Barbican: for a start, while the Barbican cut out most of the divine intervention, the gods are here in full force on the DVD, with Minerva and Mercury appearing in succession to warn Seneca of his approaching death. Personally I find that their presence just adds to the weight and pomposity of the scene; and I wasn't particularly sorry to see them excised at the Barbican. In fact, the entire role and presentation of Seneca was one of the Barbican's strengths: here it's all a little too sombre and sober. And yet, funnily enough, although the DVD production is a bit heavier and sluggish in parts, it's also much bawdier. That doesn't always work so well. I've seen comic-dramatic mixes done well, but for me this Poppea doesn't quite pull it off, and the bawdiness, particularly the guards prancing around in the first act, feels a bit like self-conscious, try-hard naughtiness.

Overall, I think the two productions are neck-and-neck, each having its strengths and shortcomings. When all's said and done, a fully-staged performance will always have a power that a concert or semi-staged version will find it hard to challenge, even if it doesn't exactly push the boat out for visual flamboyance; and the cast of this Madrid production were uniformly very strong. Even if I didn't always like the interpretation of the characters as much as I did at the Barbican, there's no doubt that there's some sheer class going on here. However, the vocal performances at the Barbican do come out of the comparison extremely well and, as I've said, despite the restricted staging I found the actual acting of Connolly, Davies and Rose more engaging, or at least appealing, than that of their DVD counterparts. With two more productions on my soon-to-buy list, it'll be interesting to see if the rankings change after I've seen the Barcelona version (Sarah Connolly again), and sampled Cencic as Nerone.

Ottavia (Anna Bonitatibus) makes Ottone (Max Cencic) an offer he can't refuse  |  Nerone and Poppea in Pur ti miro
(the gold spangles don't look too bad from this angle)

Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Year in the Life of Handel: 1738

(Handel House, until 4 January 2015)

Roubiliac's statue of Handel, unveiled in Vauxhall Gardens in 1738 and now in the V&A
On Tuesday last, we had a new opera of Handel's... It is too like his former compositions, and wants variety - I heard his singer that night, and think him near equal in merit to the late Carestini, with this advantage, that he has acquired the happy knack of throwing out a sound, now and then, very like what we hear from a distressed young calf.
That probably wasn't the reaction Handel had been hoping for with the January 1738 première of his new opera Faramondo. Nor, one imagines, did it boost the confidence of his young primo uomo, Caffarelli, who was making his London début at the age of 27. However, both singer and composer found themselves up against a cultural shift that would have a major impact on the future of opera in England: 1738 was the year in which the general public - who until that point had lapped up the glamour of Italian opera seria - began to rebel. It wasn't that they wanted to do away with opera altogether. It's just that, in an age with no surtitles, overlong da capo arias and posturing singers, they wanted something they could understand. As a French observer, the abbé Le Blanc, noted in March of that year: 'The English, who are praised for their common sense, have realized how absurd it was to go and be bored for three deadly hours two days a week just to acquire the title of being cultured.' 

The situation shouldn't be overstated, of course. Caffarelli might have had his critics, but he suffered from the fact that his audiences still had the memory of two very popular singers fresh in their minds. Both Farinelli and Senesino had left London the previous year, and he had big shoes to fill. But the tide was turning. Caffarelli didn't remain in the city for long and Handel's other frequent collaborator, Carestini, was also gone by 1740. It wasn't the castrati who were falling out of favour, however, but what they stood for. Tenducci, who was happy to sing roles in English and to adapt to local tastes, was still doing extremely well in London in the 1750s. But in 1738 Italian opera was very definitely falling out of fashion. Faramondo had only eight performances; Serse, which had its première in March, managed only five and was very definitely a flop. Handel's challenge was to find out what people did want and, with characteristic industry and creativity, he did so. 1738 is only one of several years which Handel House have chosen to focus on in their series of dedicated displays, but as a turning point of such significance in Handel's career, it must be one of the most important.

The cost of staging Handel's operas and their limited success meant that he was already short of money, to the point that he hadn't been able to pay his lead soprano, Anna Maria Strada del Po, whose husband was making increasingly vicious threats. He needed money and, since his operas didn't seem to be helping, he allowed himself to be persuaded to hold a benefit concert on 28 March. This featured a selection of his music and temporarily staved off his financial problems, as it made a total of £1,000 (around £60,000 today, the exhibition points out). His public still admired Handel deeply, even if they wanted something a little different in their theatres, and that's borne out by the fact that the famous statue by Roubiliac in Vauxhall Gardens - which has a cameo role in the ENO's Xerxes - was unveiled in the same month. It was very unusual to have a public statue of a living composer and it goes to show that Handel, no less than some of his singers, was quite the popular celebrity.

A cariacature of Caffarelli by Ghezzi  |  A caricature of Anna Maria Strada del Po  |  The overture of Faramondo  |
Strada del Po again, painted by Verelst
So Handel adapted: having begun the year with two traditional opera seria productions in Italian, he spent the summer labouring over the programme for the new season in 1739-40. One of these was an existing work he had to finish - the Italian opera Imeneo (which was described on its premiere, by one of Handel's own librettists, as 'the worst of all Handel's Compositions'), but the other works were English-language oratorios: Saul and Israel in Egypt. It's true that neither of the latter was particularly well-received at first, but Handel had found a formula which would appeal much more to his public than opera seria - and to be frank, Georgian theatre-goers seem to have been resolutely hard to impress. And this exhibition struck me with the fact, which I hadn't fully appreciated before, that Handel had witnessed the entire lifespan of opera seria in London - it had been his Rinaldo which sparked off public interest in 1711, and his Faramondo and Serse which suffered from outstaying public patience with the art form.

I've written at length partly because I learned a lot - and I thought it a clever exhibition idea to focus on a single year - and partly because it's a small show so there isn't a catalogue or anything. Most of the display is text-based, so again will mostly appeal to those with an established interest in the subject, although there are prints and copies of scores and word-books on display, as well as a couple of CD players with tracks you can listen to. Actually, one of the things which most appealed to me was the effort to give a broader sense of life in 1738 via a few other milestones: it was the year the Mineral Water Hospital opened in Bath, paving the way for the city to become the fashionable retreat of the later 18th century; it also saw John Wesley's foundation of the Methodist movement; it saw the first forays of a recently-arrived young scribbler called Dr Johnson; and, in a development which has had a greater impact on my own life than any of these, it was the year that Fortnum & Mason allegedly invented the Scotch egg. 

I'm looking forward to seeing which other years Handel House come up with for future displays - I know I've already missed a few - as it's no mean feat to get across so much information in such a small space.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A First Visit to Handel House

(25 Brook Street, London)

Although I've lived and worked in Central London for eight years, I'd never been to Handel House before; but this morning I went to the Queen's Gallery to see their First Georgians exhibition before it closed, and this promised to offer the perfect complement. All in all, it was a very Georgian day out. The contrast between the two views of 18th-century London was telling. The Queen's Gallery understandably presents a very elevated view of the period - paintings, furniture, battles and politics - whereas Handel House offers a glimpse of a more down-to-earth, scurrilous, energetic London: a 'teeming, filthy, vibrant city', the largest metropolis in Europe, full of appealingly larger-than-life characters. It is only a glimpse, but it leaves you keen to find out more about the personalities you encounter. 

Handel moved into 25 Brook Street just after it had been built in 1723 and remained there for the rest of his life.* It isn't a large house but it didn't need to be: he never married and so it's effectively a bachelor pad, not far from the King's Theatre on the Haymarket where he staged most of his operas, and with just enough space for him to rehearse with his singers and musicians. You can visit five rooms at present: Handel's dressing room; his bedroom; his rehearsal room and his composing room, plus an exhibition space (more on the current display in the next post). All are striking for their modest size: it's incredible to think that many of Handel's greatest operas, not to mention the Messiah and the Water Music, were composed in this little townhouse. Interior decoration is modest to say the least: there are some striking pieces of furniture, such as the four-poster bed, and an elegant harpsichord down in the Rehearsal Room, but for me the primary interest came from the prints and pictures. These bring Handel's London to life by introducing us to his colleagues and contemporaries, both troublesome and benign. One of the former was the Owen McSwiny, the roguish manager of the (then) Queen's Theatre. He scarpered with the profits of Handel's Teseo in January 1713 and, having been declared bankrupt, went off post-haste to Italy, where he dreamed up an elaborate scheme to commission paintings of allegorical monuments to British grandees (needless to say it didn't come off). With managers like that, who needs enemies? 

The Rehearsal Room, where concerts are still held  |  Handel's bedroom  |  Handel's tiny composing room
But Handel's greatest headaches probably came from the singers he had to work with: most memorably Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, whose on-stage rivalry led to fights between their fans, but also stimulated Handel to write Alessandro, in which he strove to keep both his leading ladies happy by giving them roles of equal stature. However, it doesn't bode well when the most famous anecdote about a composer's relationship with his prima donna (Cuzzoni) concerns him threatening to throw her out the window if she kept refusing to sing the aria he'd written for her. Next to this tempestuousness, the men must have been comparatively easy to deal with; although, since Caffarelli was among their numbers, everything is relative. In the Rehearsal Room you can see pictures of many of these singers, including prints of four of the castrati Handel worked with: Gizziello (Caffarelli's sweeter-tempered rival), Carestini, Farinelli (unflattering) and Senesino. I was also delighted to see a copy of the popular song The Ladies' Lamentation for the Loss of Senesino, which was mentioned in The Castrato and his Wife, and which pokes fun at the English women left disconsolate by the singer's departure.

It isn't a large museum and a little prior knowledge helps to get the most out of the pictures on display; but it's definitely worth a visit if you do enjoy the odd bit of 18th-century opera. There's a programme of lectures and concerts, which I'll be keeping an eye on, and the little shop has a good selection of Handel CDs and a few DVDs, which just happened to include the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare I've been after. All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. 

*The street has a fine musical pedigree, incidentally: Jimi Hendrix would later live next door at number 23, which is being restored at the moment and will also be opened as a museum in about a year or so.

Unexpected neighbours: Handel and Hendrix.

Monday, 6 October 2014

L'Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

(Barbican Centre, 4 October 2014)


Not from this production, I'm afraid, as there are no photos: not even a poster! Sarah Connolly as Nerone in Barcelona.
When a friend asked if I wanted to see Monteverdi's Poppea at the Barbican on Saturday, I said yes immediately. Poppea is a landmark in the history of music: the first opera to weave a story around historical characters rather than myths or saints. I'd seen one production before, but only one: the version on DVD directed by William Christie, with Philippe Jaroussky as Nerone, Danielle de Niese as Poppea and Max Emanuel Cencic as Ottone. I haven't written about it yet because I've been biding my time until I felt I had a better understanding of it; and this semi-staged version at the Barbican was the perfect way to put the Jaroussky version into context. Its abiding legacy will be a couple of extremely strong performances which I can use as a benchmark in the future. For another point of view on the show, see Dehggial's post here.

To summarise the plot, very briefly: the emperor Nerone (Nero) is infatuated with his mistress Poppea and plans to set aside his wife, Ottavia, to raise Poppea to the imperial throne. Ottavia, indignant and ashamed, tries to rise above the insult but finds that her patrician calm is deserting her. She can't even find comfort in the stoic advice of Nerone's former tutor, the philosopher Seneca, who believes that solid virtue will outlast transient passion. When Seneca tries to reason with Nerone, advising him against the unwise match with Poppea, Nerone snaps; and when the calculating Poppea tells him that Seneca has been boasting of his influence over the emperor, Nerone orders the philosopher to commit suicide. Freed from the shadow of Roman virtue and the last shreds of conscience, the emperor can turn to Poppea and finally indulge his greatest wish. But Ottavia refuses to be renounced so quickly. She summons the noble Ottone, Poppea's thwarted lover, who is cast into despair at being passed over for Nerone, and demands that he disguise himself and murder Poppea. Ottone dutifully borrows the clothes of Drusilla, who has a soft spot for him; but when his assassination fails and he's spotted running away, he is mistaken for Drusilla and she is arrested by Nerone's guards. Ottone must decide whether to pursue his fixation with Poppea, or to turn to the woman who loves him; and Nerone can finally raise his beloved to rule by his side. The opera ends with a glorious romantic duet. (It's almost possible to forget that Nero battered Poppea to death in a psychotic rage three years later; but as ever, that's an example of historical truth intruding on the rose-tinted world of operatic truth.)

Lynne Dawson (Poppea)  |  Sarah Connolly (Nerone)  |  Iestyn Davies (Ottone)  |  Elmar Gilbertsson (Lucano)
I usually prefer to talk about the main roles last, but I was so impressed with Sarah Connolly's Nerone that I have to begin with her. She dominated the performance for me. Her voice was rich and dusky, with high notes that hinted at the power that could be unleashed in an opera seria aria (so I snaffled her 2006 Handel album as soon as I got home). That fine voice was coupled with a remarkable presence: she commanded my attention every time she was on stage, even when she wasn't singing. I'll be frank: initially, even having seen Alice Coote's Xerxes, I'd thought it'd be odd to have a woman playing Nerone... but that didn't turn out to be a problem. In fact I forgot pretty quickly that Connolly was a woman: a leap I never quite made with Coote. This Nerone was tall, lithe and loose-limbed, prowling around in a dishevelled dinner jacket and bow tie like an errant member of the Bullingdon Club: by turns self-controlled, seductive and petulant. This is a man used to getting what he wants, and the only person who threatens to deny him is his former tutor Seneca, who persists in seeing the emperor as a mere spoiled boy, over whom he can still exercise some influence. He can't, of course. The boy is lost and the man - addicted to pleasure and power - is out of Seneca's control, a fact that proves to be his ruin. Since much of Connolly's physical presence came from her height, I was struck by the scene in which Nerone and Seneca argue over the emperor's plan to renounce Ottavia. By juxtaposing Connolly at close quarters with Matthew Rose's towering, stentorian Seneca, we see for a moment that Nerone loses his impact. He's physically and morally overshadowed by his old tutor, reduced again to the stature of a child. Here, I felt it was this implicit reminder of Seneca's authority, as much as the philosopher's ethical obstinacy, that fuels Nerone's rage.

The funny thing was that I hadn't gone intending to focus on Connolly at all. I'd been looking forward to seeing Iestyn Davies as Ottone, as an appetiser for his performance in Farinelli and the King next year. He proved to be wonderful, with a light, warm and supple voice and, equally importantly for my purposes, he was an instinctive and excellent actor. With many of the singers I've seen (yes, even some of my favourites), I get the impression that the acting creates a setting for the singing. With Davies, the singing is part of the acting and vice versa: he's going to be very good in an intimate space like the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and, though I was excited about Farinelli already, I'm even more so now.* Other standouts for me in the cast were Rose's Seneca, who managed to be dignified without being pompous (and who reminded me, rather disconcertingly, of my tutor at college); Daniela Lehner's sparky dual role as Amore and the Damigella; and Andrew Tortise's brilliant Arnalta, who came across as Widow Twankey's game younger sister. Marina di Liso made an elegant, restrained and magisterial Ottavia, glittering in a flowing green gown and conveying the sidelined empress's bitterness in beautifully mellifluous tones.

For me, the one role which didn't work so well (and I'm not the only one) was Poppea. We must put it in perspective, though. 
Lynne Dawson graciously stepped in at a very late stage to fill the shoes of Anna Caterina Antonacci, so we must pay tribute to her for that. I thought her singing per se was good: she had rich, full high notes and I particularly enjoyed the aria when she arrives at the palace to remind Nerone of their night together. And even the final Pur ti miro sounded lovely, to my ears: two well-matched voices twining in and around one another. It was very restrained, compared to some of the versions out there (yes, Max Cencic, I'm looking at you), but that gave it a dignity and poise that almost redeemed the marriage of these two amoral people. The acting, as opposed to the singing, didn't work quite so well for me. Dawson simply isn't Poppea. Admittedly, I'm comparing her to Danielle de Niese, who spent most of the DVD sprawling over the stage, but she didn't have the sensuality or voluptuousness to carry off the role. I feel bad using this word, but she was a bit too matronly to convince as a sexy young flibbertigibbet. As others have already said, there unfortunately just wasn't much chemistry between her and Connolly's Nerone. I would be so interested to see what a Pur ti miro between Connolly and de Niese would be like.

Sophie Junker (Drusilla / La Virtu)  |  Andrew Tortise (Arnalta)  |  Daniela Lehner (Amore / Damigella)
Matthew Rose (Seneca)  |  Marina di Liso (Ottavia)  |  Gwilym Bowen (Valletto)
But, with a reduced spark between Nerone and Poppea, the pressure fell heavily on the singing contest scene. In the wake of the Jaroussky version, I was interested to see how this production would approach it, and was surprised to find a staging which almost rivalled the DVD for raciness and gusto. It's a splendid duet in any case and here Connolly's voice was beautifully set off by Elmar Gilbertsson's resonant tenor. There was a slight shuffling of scenes, which meant that Nerone and Lucano were already on stage, watching, as Seneca walked off proudly through clouds of smoke to his death, which gave an extra charge to the contrast between his dignity and their debauchery. Already psyched up by news of Seneca's death, Nerone revels in an exuberant catalogue of Poppea's charms, competing with Lucano (his court poet) to see who can do greatest justice to her sensual delights. But such talk raises the blood; and this production used the languid, breathless music to underpin a scene of increasingly feverish grappling, which ends on the floor with the emperor abandoning himself to what Lucano calls 'l'estasi d'amor'. It's not what you expect from a 17th-century opera, and it certainly galvanised some of the audience, who seemed to have been lulled into a well-mannered daze during the first half.

I should mention that the production was semi-staged, which meant that it was acted but there simply wasn't much set-dressing, and the costumes were fairly basic; but at least there were costumes, which helped me to lose myself in the story. It all worked well, although of course I'd always prefer a full-blown flamboyant setting, and I rather liked the way the orchestra was set in the middle of the stage (violins, two theorbos and no fewer than three harpsichords) and the singers moved around it. The sound wasn't always perfect: the Barbican hall is a massive space and it's clad in wood, which doesn't always seem to be the best way of amplifying voices; but luckily we were in good seats not far from the stage, so we didn't suffer too much.

My experience with Poppea goes to show how important it is to watch something more than once. After watching the Jaroussky DVD I was completely baffled as to what people saw in this opera, and the music sounded entirely alien set against Artaserse, which was my only comparison at the time. Now, however, I begin to see the marvel in it - especially the two gorgeous, sensuous duets - and I also begin to see how much the design and staging of a production can change its message. I'm thrilled to see that there's a DVD of the Poppea that was staged in Barcelona, so I can get another fix of Connolly as Nerone; and I'm very probably going to end up caving in and getting the DVD with Cencic as Nerone and Sonia Yoncheva as Poppea as well, just to get a rounded picture of the different approaches.

P.S. In further proof that there is a fandom for everything nowadays, I have to share this with you: Sarah Connolly fanart, showing her in the roles of Nerone and Agrippina. Brilliant.

P.P.S. To conclude, I have no choice but to share more evidence of Sarah Connolly being totally awesome. As you will probably know, the Last Night of the Proms is an annual concert, broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall, when everyone gets together, waves flags and sings patriotic songs. Each year a notable singer, usually a soprano, is asked to take the lead for Rule Britannia. I discovered this little gem on YouTube. Most girls, asked to lead the nation in one of our most patriotic anthems, would dig a fabulous evening dress out of the wardrobe. Sarah Connolly, God bless her, turns up dressed as Nelson. With full regalia. Including a sword which turns into a flag. There are no words for how wonderful this is. Watch and marvel.

*And that's a good thing because, as anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, I've now ended up with tickets for two performances of Farinelli and the King in four days: one with Davies playing Farinelli and one with Purefoy playing the role. It'll be fascinating to compare them at such close quarters. 

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