The action throughout this early opera takes place in a drab, tiled, turquoise-tinged, apparently subterranean chamber (set and costume designer Hannah Clark) like a drained swimming pool adapted for use as a morgue, with long stainless steel tables on wheels. It is a murderous psychopath’s private cellar, a place for lust and violence, but also for obsessive love. Next to all this, at both sides of the stage, are groups of musicians equipped with the most exquisite of period instruments, including a couple of theorbos, spectacularly long-necked versions of a lute. The music from them is exquisite, too (directed from a harpsichord by Laurence Cummings), probably by Monteverdi together with some of his followers.

Sandra Piques Eddy (Poppea) and James Laing (Nerone) © Tristram Kenton
Sandra Piques Eddy (Poppea) and James Laing (Nerone)
© Tristram Kenton

Librettist Giovanni Busenello’s darkly farcical rewriting of ancient history, possibly a satirical swipe at rival contemporary Romans, is peopled here by characters costumed in an Italianate 1960s style, who would feel at home in a Fellini film, or perhaps an episode of The Sopranos. Director Tim Albery has resisted playing up the shock-horror elements, generally stepping a careful path around the bodies, and has not gone for any cheap laughs. This is the production’s strength, and paradoxically its weakness as well, especially in Act I, which is quite static: Monteverdi may have created a more dramatic and intense version of recitative, but it was starting to lose its fascination after an hour or so.

Albery’s translation from the original is excellent, removing the need for surtitles, though names were not adapted – should not Nerone become Nero? Countertenor James Laing is the emperor in question, who gets rid of his wife Ottavia (Catherine Hopper), preferring the charms of his mistress, the courtesan Poppea. Laing’s compelling, beautifully-toned voice makes sure that he dominates his scenes, just as it did a year ago in this theatre when he was Oberon in Opera North’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is matched by the countertenor of Christopher Ainslie, whose acting skills as Ottone are considerable. Sandra Piques Eddy is a wonderfully slinky and sexy Poppea, and Katherine Manley emanates plenty of steamy passion as Drusilla. Fiona Kimm is a commanding presence as Poppea's nurse Arnalta.

James Laing (Nerone) and Sandra Piques Eddy (Poppea) © Tristram Kenton
James Laing (Nerone) and Sandra Piques Eddy (Poppea)
© Tristram Kenton

In this context, a bass can sound startling, and this is the case with James Cresswell, whose rich, powerful voice comes as something of a surprise when he appears as the philosopher Seneca, in tweeds like an old-fashioned Oxford don. A corrupted authority figure, he is nevertheless quite moving when he explains how he will kill himself in his bath after receiving Nerone’s instruction to commit suicide. Emilie Renard surprises, as well: making her ON debut, she first appears as Amore (or Cupid) with a wildly grinning face under a peaked cap, but comes into her own later on when she gets the opportunity to let flow lyrically. She is one to look out for in future productions. Her big grins, and the way she voyeuristically lounges about to witness how rampant evil gets its way, tell us something significant about Busenello’s cynicism and how an audience should take this apparently amoral drama.

James Laing (Nerone) © Tristram Kenton
James Laing (Nerone)
© Tristram Kenton

Everything gathers pace in Acts II and III, after a slight rearrangement of the set. Corpses are wheeled in, to be collected and taken off later, and the farcical possibilities are tapped, albeit gingerly. When Ottone, disguised as a woman (complete with headscarf) enters to attempt to stab a sleeping Poppea after being urged to do so by Ottavia, he gets a few scattered audience titters rather than belly laughs. And when a heavy iron door at the rear of the stage is opened to reveal rows of containers filled with red liquid in a sort of refrigerated blood bank (Nerone gleefully pours one over a dead head) it is weirdly horrible, not funny. Everything leads up to the final love duet “I am yours, yours am I” which is utterly entrancing, and probably the main selling point of the opera. It begins with Nerone and Poppea sitting at either end of a long table and ends with a magnificent final tableau, with lights fading. Most people watching in the 17th century would have known that this was not a lasting triumph for this couple, or for evil itself. They knew what happened next.