Concluding its annual programme of opera with Monteverdi’s L'incoronazione di Poppea, the Royal Academy of Music, currently in exile while the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre is being renovated, decamped to Shoreditch Town Hall, giving most of us tame opera-goers a pleasing sensation of edginess.

Eve Daniell (Nerone) and Lorena Paz Nieto (Drusilla) © Robert Workman
Eve Daniell (Nerone) and Lorena Paz Nieto (Drusilla)
© Robert Workman

In this production, directed by John Ramster the setting was updated to the present day, all sharp-checked suits and mobile phones. Nerone is seen taking part in a photo-shoot that brought a kind of ultra-dictatorial fashion-house idea to mind. As temporal updates go, it wasn’t hugely revelatory, but didn’t detract either. For directing though, it was really quite moving, at times horrifying in its depiction of unrestrained and unrestrainable power. Nerone was sexually monstrous – forcing a guard to pleasure him by hand whilst excited by Poppea on the phone, sticking a wig and a mask on (the same?) guard in the second act and raping him, whilst his utter amorality was shown to be entirely matched by Poppea. In climax of the opera, their famous duet “Pur ti miro”, they consummated their nuptials by strangling Cupid. The symbolism, throughout the performance, was exceptionally high; a brutally effective exploration of power and tyranny. It certainly made the heavily-disclaimed Royal Opera’s Lucia seem prim in comparison.

The cast were all of very high standard. Nerone was sung by Eve Daniell, a soprano rather than a tenor or counter-tenor, and on the strength of her voice alone, this was excellent casting. She took a little time to warm up; her duet with Poppea “Signor, deh, non partire!” was slightly underwhelming and Daniell’s voice seemed slightly constrained, but she really came into her own during Nerone’s argument with Seneca, relaxing the voice and displaying a comfortable top and a crystalline tone that belied the malice behind it. Projection and denunciation was of a very high quality. Daniell’s acting captured the psychotic whimsy and lust of the character well. Mezzo Emma Stannard delivered an alarmingly ferocious Poppea, at one moment feisty, the next playful – the term ‘man-eater’ describes her portrayal aptly. Her voice is powerful and well-coloured, very much a character voice. I was impressed with the level of differing emotions she was able to inject into her singing; initially austere, submissive, but later full of glee. Reining in the volume a little would benefit her at times.

Tim Murphy (Seneca) and Claire Barnett-Jones (Ottavia) © Robert Workman
Tim Murphy (Seneca) and Claire Barnett-Jones (Ottavia)
© Robert Workman

Counter-tenor Patrick Terry’s Ottone was a nice man utterly in thrall to his trouser-wearing wife. His portrayal was moving and entirely believable. Terry’s voice was warm and expressive with decent flexibility, but was often lacking in projection and meat behind it, which in many ways was in keeping with his characterisation of Ottone, but may prove a problem at larger venues. Our Drusilla was sung by soprano Lorena Paz Nieto. Yet another superb actor, Nieto’s performance combined a highly emotive and complex characterisation with a pleasing sweetness of tone. Her voice is not big, but carries well. It’s worth noting here that the chemistry in the various romantic interactions of the singers above seemed entirely natural something that is often lacking even at Covent Garden and Met level.

Bass-baritone Timothy Murphy’s Seneca left a vivid impression not so much by his singing as his nuanced portrayal of the role. He captured the curious dichotomy – Seneca as philosopher and Seneca as political adviser and servant to a homicidal maniac – extremely well, giving a brash, slightly self-important performance at first (I loved the concept of someone running round capturing his words on a dictaphone), then reflective and higher-minded in his garden. It was a complete character assumption by Murphy, down to the very angle of Seneca’s back. Murphy’s voice struggled in the lower register, but was generally very easy on the ear and there was a noticeable ease with the text that made his performance convincing.

Alys Roberts (Amore), Katie Stevenson (Poppea) and Alex Otterburn (Mercurio) © Robert Workman
Alys Roberts (Amore), Katie Stevenson (Poppea) and Alex Otterburn (Mercurio)
© Robert Workman

Ottavia, sung by mezzo Claire Barnett-Jones, was the epitome of the abandoned woman, shocked and vengeful. Barnett-Jones gave powerful voice to the character, but her breath-control needs a little work to unlock her full potential. As Virtue and Venus, Katie Stevenson deployed a steely mezzo that contrasted nicely with the flirtatious warmth in the voice of Nika Gorič’s Fortuna. Alys Roberts’ Amore was mellifluous but her acting was limited initially to a few stock gestures that quickly became over familiar. Laura Zigmantaite’s Valletto gave an unexpected tour de force in her confrontation with Seneca, showing clean diction and an easy range.

The orchestra led by Jane Glover from the harpsichord, gave an unfussy performance that prioritised the singers, with nearly immaculate playing from all.