Incoronazione Di Poppea
The Coronation of Poppea

Reviewer's rating

Opera was still taking baby steps with Monteverdi’s final work, – the immorally racy, sexy Incoronazione di Poppea. First performed in Venice during the annual carnival season with a city full of tourists seeking decadent thrills, Poppea exploited contemporary politics using the true story of tyrannical Emperor Nero’s passion for his mistress Poppea, killing those in his way.  Venice was amoral then; this hit a new level – evil triumphs at the end. The audience knew that despite the happy ending, Nero kicked pregnant Poppea to death and killed himself! Poppea, sent a political message that Rome was a corrupted, decadent empire and bad; Venice is a republic and good.

New director Robin Norton-Hale could have exploited contemporary politics; tyrants killing at will to achieve their desires dominate the world. The translation is updated instead.

Poppea is in English with English subtitles. Dr. Eastman, the translator, admits Busenello’s libretto is exquisite. So why translate it? Composers and librettists always worked very closely so that the poetry and music dovetailed perfectly together. Eastman uses contemporary words, but the translation is vulgarly distorted, instead of sexily erotic. Lines like ‘bl***y hell I’m knackered’, discussions about pissing and shagging detract and are not particularly funny.  Musical accents wrongly fit the translation.

Musically, Poppea is mainly declamatory recitatives; melody is sparsely distributed. The best music is the final, and first love duet of its time, the magical Nero/Poppea duet; ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo’ becomes ‘when I see you’. The music and words should intertwine, becoming one whole, with a very erotic effect, because they are beautifully balanced. The translation kills the stunning original.

The set uses simple geometrical shapes, (easy for touring); lighting adds interest.  The costumes are mixed. Gods in gym outfits with neon halos around their necks overlook from above; Poppea, Ottavia and Drusilla wear flowing dresses, Nero in bronze velvet or black sequin trouser-suits, and odd cross-dressing for Arnalta and Luciano. Poppea is taller than Nero, high platforms emphasising it are senseless. Nero would never tolerate a woman looking down on him.

Act 2 begins with a great Nero/Lucano duet – a bawdy celebration of Seneca’s death. It lacks punch, falling flat due to the poor translation and oddly-dressed Lucano – ‘or che Seneca e morto, cantiam’ (‘now that Seneca is done with’).

There is some good singing. Welsh soprano Jessica Cale is a perfect, cold, scheming Poppea, vocally and physically; she ruthlessly uses sex for a crown, urging Nero to kill those in the way – Nero’s tutor Seneca and wife Ottavia. British mezzo, Kezia Benek’s Ottavia, and British soprano Elizabeth Karani’s Drusilla sing faultlessly, fleshing out their characters sympathetically. Canadian bass, Trevor Eliot Bowes’ Seneca has a lovely sonorous tone, and a welcome contrast for the predominantly women-based voices, originally written for castrati and soprano. English mezzo Amy J Payne as Arnalta is a highlight as the servant desperate to climb.

English mezzo Martha Jones’ Nero neither convinces vocally or physically. She starts vocally unfocussed, needs a cleaner attack, and much work on the character. Her mezzo type sings pants parts, Cherubino, Siebel, multiple Handel and Rossini; she should study how Bartoli, Barcellona, Lupinacci convince physically. The black sequinned trouser-suit does not help. There is no trace of psychopath Nero who had just murdered his mother; the characterisation should be mercurially evil and lustily passionate at the flick of a switch as the bodies pile up. A true counter-tenor works better as Nero.

British/Dubai tenor Zahid Siddiqui as Luciano made the best of his cameo despite the outfit.

Feargal Mostyn-Williams’s Otton is a one-dimensional falsetto, not an operatic counter-tenor.  One cannot express without a vocal palette; the voice is emotionless – just watch Franco Fagioli. His small interchange with Hong-Kong counter tenor Keith Pun as Amor, show up his vocal weakness.

Conductor Yshani Perinpanaygam altered the accompaniment, cutting some music but not enough; the pace is slow at times.   Over three hours is too long for predominantly declamatory recitative.

Poppea is of academic interest to seasoned opera-goers to hear how it all began. BTA’s aims should encourage new opera-goers and increase opera interest. This does neither: Poppea is not a crowd pleaser, and hopeless for first-timers. It is a questionable choice and a wasted opportunity when there are so many lesser-performed crowd-pleaser gems waiting to be performed.