Opera: Emperor's new clothes or just fancy dress?

Welsh National Opera has given Monteverdi's `Coronation of Poppea' a sonic and visual make-over. But, asks Stephen Walsh, is it still the opera the composer intended?

Monteverdi's final drama about sex and power in Nero's Rome has got longer and thinner since the Leppard era in the early Sixties, when it played for a couple of hours sheathed reassuringly in swooning strings. The new Welsh National Opera staging, which opened on Thursday (a co-production, though, with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, which saw it in July), lasts almost twice as long and with less than half the clothing.

Why play this rambling, antiquated, unfocused masterpiece at all, asks one of the programme articles rhetorically. The Cardiff audience, who enjoyed David Alden's high-camp production as they will no doubt enjoy Aladdin here in a fortnight's time, may well have felt that, without some such whooping-up, this lovely but remorselessly short-winded music would indeed be hard to endure. But that be cold comfort for the admirable Rinaldo Alessandrini, whose edition is being played, and who directs the performance.

Alessandrini is a baroque specialist who takes pains over musical detail. With him, one doesn't just get educated instrumental playing, but educated singing, with colourings and ornaments that really do carry an expressive cargo, instead of the relentlessly "learnt" trilli of early early music. Certainly the techniques are not without their problems. Beside much beguilingly sensuous work from, especially, Catrin Wyn Davies as the future empress Poppea and Sally Burgess as the outgoing empress Ottavia, there was, on Thursday, a lot of out-of-tune singing, some rough tone, and - in a few cases - an uncertainty about how to give these long ariosos expressive interest without corrupting the line. Much of this may settle down before the staging returns for next year's tour (oddly, it was only receiving two performances in Cardiff this season) and we'll be left with at least a musically coherent view of what is probably, after all, the work of more than one composer.

The production, meanwhile, is on a different planet. Alden takes his cue from the picaresque episodes, which do invite camp treatment, and get it, brilliantly, for instance from Neil Jenkins as the multiply-bewigged and handbagged maid Arnalta, and from Linda Ormiston as Ottavia's Nurse, alias an over-the-hill, over-the-top Red Cross attendant.

But when these idioms leak far into the tragic channels of the plot, the water gets muddy and the going tough. When Seneca (a bore, perhaps, but the moral focus of the drama) is tracked by three little note-taking red-quoiffed Tintins; or gets his cards from a mummified Mercury, Alden's agenda decisively abandons Monteverdi's. From a morally aware but cynical study of human conduct, the drama turns into a pageant on the vulgarity of power - which is fair enough, but another work; until, that is, the one genuinely beautiful, coherent moment of the evening, when Ottavia bids farewell to Rome amid a psychedelic nightmare of black-and-white tiles, for which unforgettable tableau I can forgive designers Paul Steinberg and Buki Shiff the office fancy-dress party that is the rest of the production.

Still, in its own terms, the evening has its strengths. Paul Nilon, a tenor rather than soprano Nero, hits off the character's febrile, womb- clutching inadequacy - pretty in neither sight nor sound - while Ms Davies gratifies him, at first, with irresistible sensuality, turning gradually to the vulgarity that is the true (in her case visible) under-belly of power. Gwynne Howell, as a chain-smoking, Guardian-reading Seneca, belongs vocally in a different production but is welcome in this one. Linda Kitchen is a nice Miss Moneypenny of a Drusilla; Michael Chance a fluent, if one- paced, Ottone; Linda Tuvas a suitably boyish Amor, perched, however, for some reason, on revolving doors that flash a disagreeable light onto the paying customers, if not onto the work.

On tour February-April 1998. Information from 01222 464666

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    KS1 Primary Teacher

    £100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

    KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

    £140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

    Year 1/2 Teacher

    £130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

    Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

    £140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam