In commemoration of the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, this exceptional staging of L’incoronazione di Poppea brings to life the heated, sensual, and stimulating drama of Poppea’s coronation. Transported on a minimalistic stage with captivating lighting (designed by Amy Clarke), this production, in the acoustic-friendly Jacksons Lane Theatre, keeps audiences engaged and absorbed throughout the intense performance.
Together with the music director, Oliver John Ruthven, the musicians created a new version of the manuscript: retaining the essence of the original score and, yet, adding a fresh and exciting edge to the score. In fact, one of the most striking features of the opera is the orchestra, or rather the relatively small band, composed of eight musicians with expertise in period instruments, such as the theorbo, harp, harpsichord, violins, violone and viola da gamba (Oliver John Ruthven, Simon Lloyd, Ryaan Ahmed, Aileen Henry, and Kate Conway, Claudia Norz, Alice Earll, and Jan Zahourek). The musicians are placed behind the singers, above a gallery, and, in spite of the fact that there is no conductor, they each have exceptional timing. Interestingly, this mimicked the size of the band employed during Monteverdi’s actual première, bringing to life the authenticity of the staging.
What else is unique about this production is the perfect balance between the singing and the acting. Firstly, we see a young cast employ excellent and accurate Italian pronunciation, proving to have the ability, at this early stage in their careers, to perform superbly in Italian, which is successfully conveyed by the accurate surtitles.
Moreover, the cast is not only able to sing their roles with great power, but to perform their roles as though they were deep within the skin of their characters. Particularly impressive performances come from Poppea (Clara Fournillier) and Nerone (Leslie Davis), whose chemistry is conveyed from the very beginning. Vocally impressive, the two perform their iconic roles with great sophistication: Fournillier’s facial expression at the end is particularly penetrating – despite satisfying her lust for power and achieving her lifelong ambition, Poppea’s expression seems to look ahead in sorrow, almost anticipating her impending tragedy.
Other female singers in male parts included Valetto, interpreted by Helen May, whose passionate acting leading up to the seduction scene with Damigella (Angelica Conner) is by far than credible and convincing – the almost acrobatic dance sequences among the lovers, and employed throughout the opera, is also especially captivating. The use of female actors in male parts seems to liberate the opera from more conventional approaches and, curiously, to invert what used to occur in early modern drama where female roles were often played by male roles – adding a peculiarly intriguing element to this vibrant production.
Further impressive performances come from Benjamin Schilperoort in the role of Seneca, who is able to transmit the character’s intellectual authority and tragic end with great command and control. The voices of Ottavia (Eira Sjaastad-Huse) and Ottone (Collin Shay) stood out in particular due to their timbre qualities.
It is therefore very clear from the outset that this production has been put together by a director whose expertise in opera, acting, and Italian, holds together the intricately complex and thought-provoking opera, filled with intertwining plots-within-plots. Director Simon Iorio brilliantly represented, reframed, and restaged this powerful work for modern audiences today.