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Royal Weddings Fuel Brutal Oligarchs, Fat Pigs: London Stage

Zoe Bonner, left, and Jessica Walker in "The Coronation of Poppea" by Monteverdi at the King's Head Theatre, London. Poppea stops at nothing to become empress of Rome. Photographer: Simon Annand/Kevin Wilson PR via Bloomberg

In “The Tsar’s Bride” the poisoned heroine goes mad, her lover is executed, and the villain’s throat is cut. Who guessed a royal wedding could be so exciting?

Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1899 work, currently in a new staging at the Royal Opera House in London, tells the story of Marfa, a young woman who is unwillingly ordered to marry a tsar. This causes all sorts of ructions for her sweetheart, and for an evil nobleman who burns with desire for her.

The opera is rarely performed in the West, and has never been seen before at Covent Garden. It’s a hot-and-cold piece, with ravishing music and a diffuse plot that sidelines the central love story and sometimes relies on dramatic cliche.

Forget the fat lady. You know this one’s over when all the principals are lying in a bloodsoaked heap on stage.

Director Paul Curran sets the action among modern Moscow oligarchs, and it makes an effective background for a story about brutality and the power of wealth. The evil Grigory likes to tie up and torture his enemies in his very own stylish restaurant.

Marfa’s father invites friends to his rooftop pool terrace, complete with stunning views of Moscow.

Dramatic Lurches

Like the piece itself, Curran’s production has its flaws. For each gorgeous set design, there’s a lackluster one. For every moment of well-paced dramatic tension, there’s a period of stasis and narrative confusion. It’s all like a car that keeps slipping unexpectedly between second and fourth gears.

Marina Poplavskaya (Marfa) performs with an intensity that compensates for her unrelaxed and tense sound. Tenor Dmitry Popov (Ivan) and baritone Johan Reuter (Grigory) sing with caressing beauty as her lover and nemesis, respectively.

Go for the rarity value, and some glorious musical highlights. Rating: **.

There’s another royal wedding from OperaUpClose, a company that won an Olivier Award this year for its lively pub-theater staging of Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Their latest venture is another low-budget staging of Monteverdi’s 1642 sex’n’suicide shocker “The Coronation of Poppea.”

Playwright Mark Ravenhill both translates the libretto and makes his opera directing debut. He updates the action to the decadent 1970s, and swathes his cast in colorful man-made fabrics, headbands and bangly jewelry.

For the most part, his thrust-stage production is fun, and the narrative, about a woman who stops at nothing to become wife of Emperor Nero (Jessica Walker), is clearly told.

Musical Squid

There’s nothing clear about the accompaniment, which plops on the ear like a dead squid. Music director and pianist Alex Silverman adapts the score for a jazz trio, adding blues notes and syncopated rhythms. Since he rarely looks over to the stage or singers, and never establishes rhythmic control over his players, the quotient of musical wince-factor disasters is dispiritingly high. Good idea, badly executed.

No such problems with the singing. Sweet-toned Zoe Bonner is a gem as Poppea, and Rebecca Caine injects plenty of oomph into the role of Nero’s abandoned wife Ottavia. She sings a newly composed “insertion aria” by Michael Nyman, which accurately predicts Poppea’s grisly fate. Other singers are good, though not quite top drawer.

A plucky experiment, which is equally divided between hit and miss. Rating: **.

Stolen Porker

There’s a similar tangle of good and bad in “Betty Blue Eyes,” a new musical about -- you guessed it -- a royal wedding, by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

Loosely based on Alan Bennett’s 1984 movie “A Private Function,” it tells of a claustrophobic northern U.K. town which, despite food rationing, is planning to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth in 1947. When lowly chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers (Reece Shearsmith) isn’t invited to the party, he steals Betty, a pig that has been illegally reared for the wedding feast.

On the plus side, Betty (voiced at the very end by Kylie Minogue) is the cutest animatronic porker imaginable. Gilbert’s socially ambitious wife Joyce (Sarah Lancashire) gets a razzle-dazzle number “Nobody Calls Me Nobody” that rattles the rafters, as does a pastiche jitterbug called “Lionheart.”

Richard Eyre’s production is terrifically slick, and recreates the grim grayness of class-conscious postwar Britain with comic relish.

On the minus side, a lack of narrative focus pulls at the seams of the show. Sometimes it’s about climbing up the greasy class ladder. Sometimes it’s about Gilbert’s growing fondness for Betty, and the fact that she’s too adorable to eat. The two ideas are not easily interwoven.

The bleak ending of Bennett’s film is also ditched for something much more upbeat and, ultimately, toothless. Never fear, Betty lives to oink another day.

Lancashire steals the show as the socially desperate Joyce. Oddly, director Eyre casts non-singers in most of the other roles. They’re all good actors. They also all have worrying problems of breath control and intonation.

A sow’s ear, which is only partially a silk purse.

Rating: **.

“The Tsar’s Bride” is in repertory at the Royal Opera through May 2. Information: or +44-20-7304-4000. “The Coronation of Poppea” is in repertory at the King’s Head Theatre, or +44-20-7478-0160. “Betty Blue Eyes” is at the Novello Theatre,

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

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