The full Monteverdi

The Coronation of Poppea | Coliseum, London
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The Independent Culture

A sequined red heart set high in the scaffolding of the excavation site which is currently the London Coliseum sets the tone. The Prologue lays bare (so to speak) the morality. Or rather immorality. Fortune and Virtue hurl insults at each other. Love - with lethal bow and arrow in hand - sets them straight: "No heart below, no heart in Heaven above/ Dares to challenge the all-consuming power of Love." Love changes everything. Love excuses everything. Let the carnage commence.

A sequined red heart set high in the scaffolding of the excavation site which is currently the London Coliseum sets the tone. The Prologue lays bare (so to speak) the morality. Or rather immorality. Fortune and Virtue hurl insults at each other. Love - with lethal bow and arrow in hand - sets them straight: "No heart below, no heart in Heaven above/ Dares to challenge the all-consuming power of Love." Love changes everything. Love excuses everything. Let the carnage commence.

The Coronation of Poppea is essentially an opera about an ugly divorce with no pre-nuptual. A tale of power used and abused, of lust and desire, of selfishness and ambition, of virtue unrewarded, of injustice and inequality, of murder and mayhem. It is a tale in which the spoiled and unscrupulous are exalted, and the good are... Well, the old philosopher Seneca does earn a place among the immortals, but with harridans such as Fortune and Virtue for company, what kind of honour is that? No, this is Italian soap opera of the most extraordinary cynicism. It is wicked, funny, quite shocking, and extremely rude. And it was written in 1643.

The father of opera had cracked it by then. He knew what opera was all about, what it should - and would - become. But Claudio Monteverdi was a deceptive and mysterious man, and 400 years later it is still hard for us to reconcile a libretto such as this (by Giovanni Francesco Busenello) to music of such surpassing beauty. The final duet is either one of the greatest ironies or premeditated shock endings in all opera. Poppea and Nerone lost in each other's desires, in each other's bodies, in music of such tender exaltation as to make you forget the human misery that united them.

In a blistering new translation by Christopher Cowell and a production by Steven Pimlott that has to be one of the most accomplished pieces of ensemble work that I have ever seen at English National Opera - the company at its absolute best - all that was implicit in this most wickedly ambivalent of operas is now explicit, and then some.

Aided and abetted by Monteverdi's languid, subversively chromatic vocal lines and the tactile embellishments of conductor Harry Christophers' small, perfectly formed instrumental ensemble, Pimlott proceeds to put the sex on stage, the physical literally entwining with the vocal. When they're not actually doing it, they're singing about it - oral (or is it aural?) sex across the wide open spaces of the Stefanos Lazaridis's scaffolded ramparts.

It's a ruthlessly fast and farcical pace that Pimlott sets in motion. But he and his talented, highly motivated company are lethally on the mark every time. Characters switch allegiances and partners (and frocks) with barely a beat to register that they've done so. Drusilla (the excellent Susan Gritton) has "never been so happy" that Ottone (a high-strung, leather-clad Michael Chance) has finally turned his gaze away from Poppea and towards her, but even as they make love she's checking her watch. There are as many shocks as laughs, too. The serenity of Seneca (sung with wonderful dignity by Eric Owens) preparing for death, settling down into a cleansing bath as an attendant pours a jug of his sacrificial blood over him. Valletto (Toby Stafford-Allen) and Damigella (the evergreen Kate Flowers), meanwhile, shag nearby.

Really, it's amazing how contemporary Pimlott makes the opera seem while sacrificing nothing of its historical resonance, nor its innately Italianate manner. 400 years of operatic fashion (in every sense) converge here. The marvellous Anne-Marie Owens's maid Arnalta is every black-clad Italian mama who ever served with a mind to govern; the voluptuous Alice Coote's Poppea and the countertenor David Walker's sexily petulant, thrillingly sung, Nerone symbolise selfish, sexual infatuation; and Octavia, played by handsome Sarah Connolly (what a star), is every jilted woman who refused to suffer in silence.

As she regally bids farewell, leaving Rome to her cruel husband and his new spouse, a golden light bathes the sculpted lions and crests of the Coliseum ceiling. The glory that was Rome is still forever ENO and home is currently where the sequined heart is.

* To 21 Oct (020-7632 8300)

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