Monteverdi’s Poppea and Handel’s Ottone in Yorkshire

Those who complain when the settings of opera are updated to a modern period would have benefited from comparing the productions of two baroque operas performed in Yorkshire this week: Opera North with Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea at Leeds and ETO with Handel’s Ottone at Harrogate. Tim Albery and his designer Hannah Clark had set the Monteverdi tale of power and lust in the late 20th century and it worked in every respect. The costumes – for example the ineffectual Ottone  in a tweed waistcoat; Ottavia, ditched by her husband Nero, in a prim matronly suit – served to underline the characterisation. The viciousness of Nero was enhanced by the casualness of his appearance and demeanour. Movements around and on a long table in the middle of a largely bare stage lent height and distance to the hierarchy of power, as well as bringing the work to its climax with the amorous couple first seated at either end and then physically joining in the extraordinary final duet. If the modernised English translation did not really cohere with the pliancy of Monteverdi’s vocal lines (how one yearned for some Italian vowels), this was a small price to pay for its immediacy in communicated the drama, fully matched by the sharpness of Albery’s direction of the cast.

In comparison, the ETO performance of Ottone (based on the history of the German king of that name and not to be confused with Monteverdi’s character) did not convince. Admittedly Handel’s opera seria, with their succession of solo arias and jolting plots, are more difficult to stage. A stylised, abstract approach often works, but the attempt by James Conway and Takis to recreate a Byzantine environment and mood with budget-constrained sets, did not help in elucidating the drama and there was much uncertainty as to what movement and actions were appropriate to suit that background. That the audience laughed at, rather than with, the production was an indicator of failure.  I was reminded of how baroque opera used to be staged thirty plus years ago when directors, adhering to a literal interpretation of the story and setting, missed  the essentials of the piece, which speak to us across the centuries, and simply drew attention to the creaking artificiality of the plot.