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Classical and Jazz: Review - Monteverdi’s Poppea at The King’s Head Theatre

Claudio Monteverdi
Poppea (Zoë Bonner) and Nero (Jessica Walker)

Published: 21 April, 2011
by SEBASTIAN TAYLOR

POOR Claudio, I heard you moaning in your Venetian grave when they performed your Coronation of Poppea at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, the other day. Your historic opera has been updated and jazzified to make it more accessible to audiences with very different attitudes to the audiences of your day, 360 years ago.

Actually, although you may not agree, the re-write job by playwright Mark Ravenhill, best known for his Shopping and F***ing play, is rather good. Despite an ominous start with a string of “f” word expletives, the opera has not been turned into another “in yer face” Ravenhill piece.

Much has been cut so it’s easier to understand the plot and relationships at the heart of Nero’s Rome.  

Inevitably, there’s lots of flesh on show, with soprano Zoe Bonner appearing as Poppea in baby doll lingerie, and blood flows like the Tiber when philosopher Seneca cuts his wrists on Nero’s orders. 

The re-write job on your music by Alex Silverman has replaced your continuo with a jazz combo – piano, sax and double bass – so that the piece now swings along merrily.

Fortunately, your beautiful song-lines remain intact.

But an additional aria written by “minimalist” locally-based composer Michael Nyman sounds “maximalist” compared with your spartan work. You had Nero performed by a castrato.   Now, the role is usually sun by a counter-tenor or soprano, Jessica Walker in this case. Ravenhill makes the most of the homo-erotic potential of Nero performed by a woman, in love with Poppea.

Your rapturous love duet “I gaze at you, I possess you” sung by Nero and Poppea turns out to be a passionate lesbian duet with both singers in various stages of undress, kissing with fervour and generally getting at each other.

It’s one of the most erotic duets in all opera.  When sung by two excellent sopranos under Ravenhill’s direction, it could well turn your Poppea into the cult opera of the year.

• Monteverdi’s Poppea is in the OperaUpClose repertory at The King’s Head, Upper Street, N1, throughout the year. 020 7478 0160, www.kingsheadtheatre.com 

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