L'incoronazione di Poppea, Britten Theatre, London <br/> LSO / Marin Alsop, Barbican Hall, London <br/> Death in Venice, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The Benjamin Britten International Opera School of the Royal College of Music exists to train young singers for professional careers. Recent years have brought some excellent productions to the Britten Theatre but few have met the educational remit as comprehensively as Paul Curran's production of L'incoronazione di Poppea. Attractively designed, and alert to the organic flow from scene to scene that Monteverdi's score demands, it was an encyclopaedia of the skills an aspiring opera singer should master: on-stage urination, simulated cunnilingus, girl-on-girl action, boy-on-boy action, faux-casual scratching of one's own naked bottom, and singing in a style ill-served by the traditional syllabus.

Joking apart, it is essential that young singers should be able to do things that might make their grandmothers blush, and do them convincingly, just as it is essential that they should be able to communicate sorrow, joy, pain, ambiguity, guilt, desire, and, in this opera, a philosophy that celebrates emotion over sentiment. Were Curran's Poppea merely a compendium of sensationalist stage-business, I'd be the first to squeak. But he's far too clever a director for that, and though Monteverdi's argot proved arduous for Michael Rosewell's timid orchestra, and too many singers were audibly counting the beats of each trillo, this sharp, thoughtful production revealed a rich seam of dramatic and musical talent.

Though Pumeza Matshikiza (Poppea) has beauty enough to drive any emperor mad, she and Huw Llywelyn (Nerone) were more comfortable with the ariosi and sporadic fioritura than with the syllabic rhetoric that forms the spine of the score. As Seneca, Kostas Smoriginas revealed a thrilling, burnished bass that he has yet to grow into, while Dawid Kimberg's smaller, more polished baritone made Ottone's vacillations thoroughly believable. Stephanie Lewis's beautifully sung Ottavia was presented, somewhat unsympathetically, as a bitter tragédienne. This aside, Curran's characterisations were neat and clear, with smart double-acts from John McMunn and Siphiwo Ntshebe as the soldiers, and Rita Therese Ziem and Ida Falk Winland as the warring Fortuna and Virtu. Alistair Digges's purse-lipped Arnalta was a consummate comic turn, while Eliana Pretorian, doubling as Amor and the priapic Valletto, gave two dazzling performances: bringing the text to life, singing with style, colour, and vivacity, and moving with the panache and control of a trained dancer. Were I looking to cast a professional production of Poppea, I'd snap her up in a heartbeat.

It is baffling that not one of the London orchestras has offered Marin Alsop a Principal Guest Conductorship, or even a Principal Conductorship. Last Sunday, with the London Symphony Orchestra, she proved again how powerful and subtle a Mahlerian she is, and underlined her physical and mental stamina in John Adams's Fearful Symmetries. This is a difficult work to co-ordinate, seemingly formulaic in its locomotive pulse, yet teeming with Romantic, Impressionist, Pop, and Big Band details and minute shifts in orchestral colour. Alsop teased out each detail, meticulously adjusting the balance, while maintaining a hip-swivel that makes Marc Minkowski seem a model of yogic stillness. Her account of Mahler's Fifth Symphony was concentrated in its lyricism, with an understated, deeply felt Adagietto, devoid of false sentimentality. It cannot be long before one of our top orchestras realises what they are missing, and has the courage to engage a conductor with the skill and dedication to develop a distinct sound and style, rather than another big name with too little time to spare.

The previous evening, Richard Hickox allowed the soft, rosy sound of the Philharmonia to shimmer and glow in Death in Venice. Hickox may not be as expressive or dynamic a conductor as Alsop, but he knows when to get out of the way and facilitated a concert performance of unique beauty and intelligence from the orchestra, chorus and three magnificent soloists: Philip Langridge, Alan Opie and William Towers. This has been a glorious autumn for Britten's music, and Langridge's performance as Thomas Mann's bewitched, bothered and bewildered intellectual, adrift in a lagoon of foolish longing, will, I expect, be remembered for many decades. So too should the ensemble playing of the Philharmonia.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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