Often considered as the first operatic masterpiece, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643) presents challenges for modern productions. After its reintroduction to the operatic repertoire in 1962 by Raymond Leppard at Glyndebourne, scored for a much larger orchestra than the 17th century could have envisaged, it re-emerged in more historically informed style courtesy of Alan Curtis in 1980. This more rigorous approach has continued, and is followed by Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera in its present run. Musically, this is a fabulous feast for the ears, but the staging under director Mark Gaal has a few issues.

Jake Arditti (Nero) © Brett Boardman
Jake Arditti (Nero)
© Brett Boardman

The original version of Monteverdi's opera runs over three hours. There are several cuts in this version, and it comes in at about two hours and forty minutes, not counting a twenty minute interval.  Rather than presenting it in the original three act form, the pause occurred at the end of Act 2 Scene 3, resuming with Scene 6. Many of the cuts are minor, removing some repetitious matter, but others are more substantial. Many of Monteverdi’s large cast are removed altogether, or combined into others, for instance, Nutrice is absorbed into Arnalta. Some roles are double or triple cast – Poppea also appears as Fortuna, Ottavia triples as Drusilla and Virtù. The missing characters comprise two gods (Mercurio and Pallade) and three underlings – Nutrice along with Damigella and Valletto, which entails the omission of the Act 2 chatterbox scene – inessential to the plot, but amusing. Another obvious cut is Poppea and Nerone’s duet “Ne più s’interporra” from Act 3, perhaps because it would distract attention from the final glorious “Pur ti miro”?

Kanen Breen (Arnalta) © Brett Boardman
Kanen Breen (Arnalta)
© Brett Boardman

The omission of some of Seneca’s lines and scenes might be attributed to a directorial take on his character which is at odds with his historical image. These include his interchanges with Pallade and Mercurio, which mark him as a favourite of the gods, and he is usually seen as a wise and virtuous figure who accepts Nerone’s demand that he commit suicide with stoical grace (as the historical record also suggests). In this version, he is a spivvy character in a white suit, who compromises himself and is drowned by two of Nerone’s thuggy squad.  The opera is thus left without a moral centre. 

This suggests a concept which equates the Roman Empire with contemporary society in which celebrity is the goal of all and corruption is even more pervasive than Monteverdi suggested. This is reinforced by the modern day costumes and settings (designer Charles Davis), which are unrelentingly drab in the first half, with a stage surround looking like a rendered cement corner of some modern downtown, and Nerone and his thug mates appearing in street-boy outfits. The women have that contemporary look of young girls out on the town who are barely distinguishable from street walkers. Some acts of sexual violence emphasise the nastiness of it all. The second part introduces a shimmering red curtain as the background to the final coronation, in which Nerone and Poppea both appear in glittering outfits, snapped by an admiring group of press photographers.

Jake Arditti (Nero) Helen Sherman (Poppea) © Brett Boardman
Jake Arditti (Nero) Helen Sherman (Poppea)
© Brett Boardman

Musically, all was Baroque heaven. A very concentrated  Orchestra of the Antipodes negotiated Monteverdi’s complex score under Erin Helyard’s exquisitely attentive direction, playing at an historical high pitch (A=440, compared with A=415 for later 18th-century works) on period instruments. These included now quite unfamiliar instruments such as a lirone, a violone and cornetti. The small string forces especially lent great transparency to the sound, and the players negotiated the varied changes in tempi and unexpected resolutions with great finesse.

The singing was overall glorious with no obvious weak link. It could be said that some of the singers were clearly not at home with the style of the period (there was a notable lack of effective shakes), and not all the voice types are ideal for this music, but putting that aside, the singing – and acting – was all of a high standard. Italian diction was also generally more than acceptable. One must single out the two rising English countertenors – perhaps one might say they are now risen – Jake Arditti (Nerone) and Owen Willetts (Ottone) who both have lovely clear voices, the latter having an engaging warm tone, and their experience in Baroque opera is clearly evident. Helen Sherman, billed as a mezzo-soprano, projected a beautiful creamy effect as Poppea and one could clearly see what Nerone saw in her. Younger Australian sopranos Roberta Diamond (Amore) and Natalie Christie Peluso (Ottavia, Drusilla, Virtù) both impressed, the latter particularly in her two dramatic scenes as Ottavia, sounding glorious and also compelling sympathy. David Greco (baritone) was impressive as Seneca, and Kaneen Breen (tenor) made a sympathetic and well-developed character out of Arnalta/Arnalta, as well as looking fabulous.

****1