Every year, the Festival della Valle d’Itria presents an opera of the Baroque repertoire: this year’s gem was Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. This was the final stage of a workshop of the Accademia of Bel Canto "Rodolfo Celletti" and accordingly, the cast of singers was all made of students of the Accademia, an institution which plays an important role in the organisation of the Festival.

Shaked Bar (Nerone) and Quiteria Muñoz Inglada (Poppea) © Paolo Conserva
Shaked Bar (Nerone) and Quiteria Muñoz Inglada (Poppea)
© Paolo Conserva

Famously, Monteverdi’s masterpiece is all about the power and tragedy of love. Ottone finds out that his lover Poppea is pursuing an affair with Nerone, and has in mind to become the new empress. Seneca, Nerone’s advisor who opposes the plan, is put to death. Ottavia, meanwhile, orders Ottone to kill Poppea, but he is stopped by the god of Love, Amore. Ottone and Ottavia are exiled and Nerone and Poppea can crown their love. The two pitilessly overstep all restrictions, both relational and moral, to satisfy their passion, until the final triumph in the Empress’ coronation.

In the Prologue, there is a dispute between Fortuna, Virtù and Amore about which of them has most power. At the end of this pithy, sensual performance by the Accademia “Celletti” under the direction of Gianmaria Aliverta, it’s Amore that can undoubtedly claim victory.

The Academy workshops serve as a training ground for young singers, and their vocal performances in this production responded well to their efforts. Soprano Quiteria Muñoz Inglada, was a charming and sensual Poppea, with a clear, secure voice when phrasing and tuning. She showed her single-minded commitment to becoming empress by displaying seductive lyricism and a consistent weight and tone.

Shaked Bar, a mezzo-soprano, was solid and likeable as Nerone. She and Inglada blended remarkably in “Pur ti miro”, one of the most beautiful duets in all opera. Bar was quite authoritative and vocally self-assured as the Roman emperor. She delivered her lines, on one hand with sensitivity and flexibility, on the other with blind and egotistic self-conviction.

Nicolò Donini (Seneca) © Paolo Conserva
Nicolò Donini (Seneca)
© Paolo Conserva

Nicolò Donini used his ample bass intelligently as Seneca, curbing his tone to convey both moral superiority and human humbleness. In “Venga, venga la morte”, he expressed dignity and virtue while welcoming death. In a passage with Nerone, both Shaked Bar and Donini showed litheness and control as the music emotional force grew more and more.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Bessi was a credible Ottavia; her fine phrasing and dark timbre conveyed a truly noble anguish. Her arias “Disprezzata regina” and “A Dio Roma”, were rendered with agile singing, while chromatic shades accentuated her tragedy.

Margherita Rotondi was a mezzo-soprano Arnalta, in this production the embodiment of Agrippina’s ghost, demonstrating a sound tone and a pleasing upper register. Baritone Giampiero Cicino was Poppea’s nurse, bringing in a moment of fizzy light relief, though he overacted here and there. The other singers gave also fine performances: mezzo Francesca Sartorato as Ottone and Tal Ganor, a soprano, as both Amore and Drusilla.

The musical quality was further boosted by Cremona Antiqua, a leading early-music ensemble led by Antonio Greco, which performed beautifully, with an unceasing stream of arias, duets and trios and a flexible control of tempo.

As the Accademia’s emphasis is on the voices, the productions they set up are kept as basic and low cost as possible, and consequently the sets and costumes in this staging were bare-bones. Despite of this, director Gianmaria Aliverta was able to keep the piece quite faithful to the spirit of Monteverdi’s masterpiece.

The performing site, the Baroque cloister of San Domenico, offered a small and intimate space where the players could act in close contact with the audience, who was less than three metres away from the singers. This closeness and the acoustic characteristics of the cloister were well exploited, with a shrewd use of the limited space to create an intimacy with the public, almost incorporated in the action as the singers dramatically interacted in the space in front of them.

Poppea’s white, tiny house with a flowery balcony, designed by Raffaele Montesano, was well integrated in the architecture of the cloister; the costumes by Alessio Rosati were mostly made of painted jeans and t-shirts. Bare essentials, but fit for the purpose.