Showcasing four new works and eleven female directors, Grimeborn Opera Festival returned for the fifteenth year to present a variety of traditional favourites and new tales from across the globe. Grimeborn Opera Festival opened at the Arcola Theatre with Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea as the first of fourteen shows.

The acclaimed production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) explores the power games of Ancient Rome alongside themes of ambition, love and lust.

L'Incoronazione di Poppea is a timeless and iconic tragedy. It was one of the first operas to use real historical events and people - describing how Poppaea, mistress of the Roman emperor Nero, is able to achieve her ambition and be crowned empress. Traditionally, L'incoronazione di Poppea has been praised for its originality and human qualities that can be attributed to each of the characters. I’d liken it to a 17th century Love Island with sovereignty, murder and slightly more betrayal.

The original manuscript of the score does not exist; two surviving copies from the 1650s (‘Venice’ and ‘Naples’) show significant differences from each other, and each differs to some extent from the libretto - so the operatic has always been open to interpretation. Presenting a more modern rendition of the seventeenth-century drama de musique, Ensemble OrQuesta, founded by Marcio da Silva in 2014, captured the story extremely well.

As we were gently hushed, the lights dimmed to reveal a simple set, consisting of a bed and an armchair which remained on stage for the duration of the performance. The only other props utilised during the show was a butter knife (supposedly a sword) and a pot of red paint with two brushes - 10 dramatic red lines were added to the backboard during the performance, each one signifying the death of a key character.

Although I know the story of The Coronation of Poppea; for me, the first thirty minutes of the performance was mostly guesswork, slowly identifying who each character was and what the central conflicts between them were.

Initially, we were presented with a man and woman laying together in the bed in the middle of the stage, which (I think) transpired to be Poppea and Nerone. Whilst Helen May remained in the role throughout, Nerone was picked up by the brilliant Julia Portela Piñoń for the remainder of the performance following the initial bed scene. Perhaps this is a representation of the fusion of masculinity and femininity akin to the fluid nature of notorious emperor Nero (Nerone) who was a hedonistic ruler, marrying both women and men. Or, perhaps, I’m way off the mark, but one thing is for sure, I was left wondering “who was that guy at the beginning of the show?”.

Once the plotline became clear, there were some very evocative moments of note. The love scenes between Nero and Poppaea were sensual and convincing for the most part, although their sex scene in the second half seemed slightly rushed. The death of Drusilla captivated the audience as she sacrificed herself for her love. Helen May’s sensual depiction of Poppaea held the drama together, as she lay across the bed for most of the performance in wait for her love.

The production was very much an ensemble piece with many actors adopting multiple roles. The costumes left a lot to the imagination; bare feet, a red dress for the character playing “love” and plain black attire for many of the other roles. Whilst the simplicity of the costumes let the actual drama do the talking, it also felt a bit like an edgy A-Level performance, potentially lacking budget.

As with lots of operas nowadays, Italian to English translations were provided via subtitles left, right, and centre of the stage, allowing the audience to follow the action as it went along. This gives a similar effect to watching a movie with subtitles, once you settle into both reading text and observing the drama unfold it becomes quite natural. Aside from a few moments where the text lagged behind the action, it gave us the pleasure of understanding the pure poetry of Claudio Monteverdi’s prose.

The standout part of the whole performance was the music. The Greensleeves-esque string ensemble that accompanied the operatic lyrics throughout, led by Marcio da Silva, did a beautiful job of transporting me back to the sixteen hundreds. The orchestra’s period instruments never overwhelmed the voices and were cleverly positioned under a platform to the left of the stage that allowed the audience to both see and hear them, without drawing focus from the actors. The musicians’ energy was a delight to observe.

The singers could all hold a note exceptionally well - the primarily soprano cast was well balanced by British tenor, Kieran White, who blew us away with his adaptability to the various character roles that he switched between. If you’re a big opera fan, you can catch Kieran as the lead in various ensembles across the UK and mainland Europe - he’s definitely one to watch.

A personal highlight was the “don’t die Seneca” scene where all of the musicians joined in, from both on and off stage, to create a dramatic harmony that echoed around the theatre. There was a fantastic use of space throughout the performance, with actors entering and exiting the stage from all angles.

The obvious difference between this interpretation of Monteverdi’s great work and many of the others is the lack of comedy in the performance, leaving the audience wanting more - although there’s every potential that some of the jokes passed us by. Moreover; the Nurse’s aria that traditionally comes after Nero promised to make Poppea empress was cut completely which gave the production a monochromatic feel, intentional no doubt from the Director, but lacked innovation.

Arcola Artistic Director, Mehmet Ergen, champions the idea that music has the power to connect and opera should be accessible to all, so ticket prices were extremely affordable. Overall; Ensemble OrQuesta’s rendition of L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the Grimeborn Festival was both sensual and dramatic, with a sprinkling of light comedic respite to counter the intensity.

I really enjoyed this compelling 160 minute (including interval) performance but probably wouldn't rush back to see it again. The simplicity of the set left a lot to the imagination, but resulted in a real appreciation of the music, poetry and acting. I’m excited to see what the other thirteen shows have to offer.

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