In the prologue of L'incoronazione di Poppea, Cupid brags that the action will prove his dominance over both virtue and fortune. A more cynical viewer would say it’s not love but ambition that prevails. Over the course of the opera, we watch two terrible people – the Emperor Nerone, who abuses power to satisfy his whims, and his lover Poppea, who schemes and sleeps her way to the throne – get exactly what they want. They sing such beautiful music that we’re even happy for them; never has wickedness sounded so good.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists
© Salzburger Festspiele | Silvia Lelli

Young countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim was a marvel of tireless coloratura as Nerone. He combined a glassy sound with precise intonation and dramatic flair. The role mostly sits right within his tessitura, though his tone became frayed at the highest extremes. His voiced blended beautifully with Poppea’s (Hana Blažíková’s) for a honeyed rendition of “Pur ti miro”. On the whole, though, Blažíková’s light, flexible soprano was slightly underpowered for the size of the house.

Mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato stood out as the “scorned queen” Ottavia for her huge, earthy tone. Gianluca Buratto as Seneca also made an impression with the size of his voice – a booming bass with buttery legato. Soprano Anna Dennis delighted (as she has throughout this trilogy), giving Drusilla a clear, flutelike voice and highly animated acting. Carlo Vistoli sang Ottone in a reedy, agile countertenor with plenty of pathetic anguish. 

L’incoronazione di Poppea boasts a huge cast, and all the small roles were filled well. Notable contributions included tenor Zachary Wilder’s strong coloratura as Lucano, Lucile Richardot’s chesty mezzo as Arnalta, and countertenor Michał Czerniawski’s hilarious register breaks as the nurse. Feathery-toned soprano Silvia Frigato made an excellent horny young boy as the page and Cupid. The voices of the men’s chorus (including countertenors) blended and swelled thrillingly as they pleaded with Seneca not to die. Their sound was so full, I had to count twice to assure myself that they really numbered just eleven singers.

L'incoronazione di Poppea at the Salzburg Festival
© Salzburger Festspiele | Silvia Lelli

Sir John Eliot Gardiner led the English Baroque Soloists in a bright rendition of the score. He established a clear, brisk tactus and drew out the slower moments to build tension. He was less daring when pushing the pace fast; I would have liked to hear more sections at breakneck speed for contrast. The chitarroni, violins, and cornetti all delivered prominent passages crisply and energetically.

As with L’Orfeo and L’Ulisse, the concert included just enough staging to add to the drama. Nerone looked striking in his peacock-blue vest, and he and Poppea shared excellent chemistry. L’incoronazione di Poppea used fewer gimmicks than the previous two operas (fewer gods or brass players appearing on upper levels of the Felsenreitschule, no sudden lighting changes to signal divine intervention, and less comedic interaction with the instrumentalists), but the blocking and music told the story clearly. It was an emotional journey, from the heady high of Poppea’s early hopes through the anguish of Ottone’s dilemma and the melting sweetness of the final duet.

This performance marked the end of the Monteverdi 450 series at the Salzburg Festival. The tour continues across Europe and the United States. If you are near one of the stops, don’t miss out on this chance to see extraordinary performances of early opera.