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When Monteverdi wrote L’incoronazione di Poppea for republican Venice in 1642, he devised an opera not about mythical archetypes but – a probable first for the nascent art form – about real human beings. He showed their frailties, their ability to love and hate, to be good, evil, pompous, humble, callous and kind. Poppea is unashamedly popular in its treatment of love, lust and power.

In full flood it makes a gripping spectacle – one of the most complex and provocative of all operatic experiences, a tale of moral ambiguity and emotional depth told in music of extreme beauty and dramatic suggestiveness.

English National Opera proved as much during its “Italian” season seven years ago (a low-budget production directed by the late Steven Pimlott). So what are we to make of its latest effort, a glitzy show devised by cult Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng? Chen’s ENO Orfeo 18 months ago was such a mesmerising experience that it’s not surprising someone hit on the idea of a Monteverdi cycle. But Poppea is a different animal. It’s less emblematic than the earlier opera, more down-to-earth. It needs a director who can draw characters and, whatever the setting, let us see ourselves
in them.

Chen doesn’t interpret the opera, still less probe it. He traces over its surface a web of movement, light, film and colour that is tangential, if not irrelevant, to what is going on. The singers are treated like mannequins, the music is incidental. There’s not a trace of the erotic. We see people in modern dress – everything from bikinis to gardening clothes (costumes by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward) – but don’t know who they are or why they feel the way they do. Most of the words are upstaged by images, on stage or on screen, that could illustrate anything and everything.

The video footage by flora&faunavisions comes and goes, dwarfing the singers and diverting attention. Walt Spangler’s décor turns the stage into a big empty space, intermittently invaded by a trapeze, a motorised snail, a mobile pumpkin and a prow-like promontory that is too ungainly to disappear properly backstage. As for Chen’s Indonesian movement group, well, they are part of his package. The entire show is an empty conceit that confirms Chen as an adherent of the Robert Wilson school of direction: one style fits all.

Pity the poor cast. A few of the singers summon enough voice and personality to shake up Chen’s dumb-show: step forward Robert Lloyd’s charismatic Seneca and Lucy Crowe’s Drusilla, a performance of real vocal edge. Christopher Gillett’s drag Arnalta turns the lullaby into the evening’s musical high-water mark, while Doreen Curran’s Ottavia – all spite and sexy suspenders – is clearly a Poppea in the making.

The pairing of Anne Grevelius’s Nero with Kate Royal’s Poppea doesn’t work. Grevelius is a lovely singer, oozing confidence, but she is too sweet-toned and small of stature to make a scheming emperor. A tenor Nero would always be my choice, and ENO has a candidate in Nicholas Watts, singing Lucano, the emperor’s poet-friend: his scene with Nero sounded like a love duet.

Poppea should be the star of the show, but Royal doesn’t stand a chance. Stranded above the stage for the first half, she presents a portrait of untouchable beauty, too remote to convey a whiff of sensuality or vocal radiance. In spite of the questionable use of organ, Laurence Cummings salvages some musical credibility for the show with a reading that is exceptionally warm, soft and – thanks to a virtual orchestra of chitarroni – texturally seductive.

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