Pub opera is all the rage. Or so we’re told. OperUpClose’s version of Puccini’s La Bohème won this website’s award for Best Off-West End production, and although I didn’t see it, by and large reports were favourable. It also won the Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production – was this Bohème performed in a pub really better than Simon McBurney’s staging of A Dog’s Heart for ENO? Can you compare the two? Well, not really, and whilst La Bohème was a critical success, other projects such as the ‘Ladyboy’ Madama Butterfly were critically panned, so what is pub opera actually offering? Bold, innovative stagings that attract a handful of youthful operatic virgins or well-below par performances of classic works that traduce the originals?
The answer is probably a mixture of the two – it’s all a bit hiss and miss but I’m happy to report that by and large their version of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea is a hit. It was a shrewd move to invite Mark Ravenhill, of Shopping and Fucking fame to direct his first opera and given his history, Monteverdi’s tale of extra-marital affairs, murder, suicide and subterfuge seemed right up his street. Also responsible for the translation, once passed the opening potty-mouthed tirade, he provided a ‘contemporary’ gloss to proceedings with only the occasional line ‘Seneca is dead meat’ sounding totally out of place.
About two hours of Monteverdi’s music remains, but the Prologue is ditched, with many of the original characters being excised from the original opera including Virtue, Cupid and Fortune and most of the Royal court save the character of Liberto who also doubles as the nurse Arnalta. The setting is contemporary, the costumes Oxfam-chic, and the story is clearly told, and for that we should be grateful.
The cast is good, with the standout performance coming from Rebecca Caine as Nero’s spurned wife, Ottavia. She is given an extra aria, written by Michael Nyman, that precedes the rapturous closing duet for Poppea and Nero, informing the audience what will happen after the close of the opera, and it ain’t pretty. As Nero Jessica Walker is imperious, and lends a suitably deranged edge to her performance but at the moment her mezzo lacks the requisite colour for the role. Zoe Bonner is a petulant Poppea whilst Adam Kowalczyk doubles nicely as Liberto and Arnalta. David Sheppard was a cipher as Ottone and sounded vocally out of sorts on the first night, and was no match for Jassy Husk’s forthright Drusilla, nor did Martin Nelson have sufficient gravitas for the role of Seneca.
Perhaps most contentious of all was the musical adaptation by Alex Silverman which rescores the work for double bass, saxophone and piano. The jazzy inflections didn’t always work and I kept thinking that there must be a better combination of instruments that could have matched Monteverdi’s sound-world than these. But on its own terms this version of Poppea works and if you haven’t given opera a go (in a pub or at the Garden) then this is a good way to dip your toe in the water.
Mark Ravenhill’s version of The Coronation of Poppeais in rep at the King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, Islington, N1 1QN. Tel: 020 7478 0160. www.kingsheadtheatre.com