Time stands still when, in the moonlit night, nurse Arnalta sings her mistress to sleep. No doubt behind the lulling harmonies, Poppea dreams of assuming Ottavia's throne at the side of Emperor Nero, soon to triumph in a pleasingly perverse case of vice trumping virtue at the behest of the goddess Love. It is a typically ravishing moment in Wilson's production of L'incoronazione di Poppea, which concludes the director's much-acclaimed trilogy of Monteverdi operas for La Scala and the Paris Opera.

Miah Persson (Poppea) and Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nerone) © Lucie Jansch
Miah Persson (Poppea) and Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nerone)
© Lucie Jansch

The music is sublime under Monteverdi specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini – billed by one newspaper as "the man who has done so much to make Italian music sound Italian again" – who leads Concerto Italiano from the harpsichord with cottier beats, planting the trowel to expose earthy delights. His style is muscular and charismatic, and, tonight at least, we benefit from the reality that there is no definitive score of Poppea. (Two divergent versions of the piece were discovered in Venice and Naples respectively.) Alessandrini himself is the mastermind behind tonight's edition, and his interpretation is an explosive fabric that flows with a sense of spontaneity. 

Such vital music-making contrasts boldly, and thrillingly, with Wilson's pristine staging. A background light show switches through shades of blue, acquiring a reddish hue when Poppea's glory begins to dawn. The stage dilates and retracts with fragmentary scenery floating in – a façade with three rectangular openings forms an atrium for Poppea's apartments, where trees gradually replace the columns as the culture of Nero yields to Poppea's nature. Seneca's garden is stunning: a walled backdrop with an arched entrance, through which a floating tree can be glimpsed against the lapis backdrop.

Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nerone), Miah Persson (Poppea) © Lucie Jansch
Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nerone), Miah Persson (Poppea)
© Lucie Jansch
 

Followers of Wilson's trilogy will know what to expect: 17th century dress, powdered faces, garish visages and choreography that jolts in frames. This abstract, stilted language worked well for the mythical Orfeo, yet I had suspected that Poppea might not fare so well. The libretto is by Busenello, a member of Venice's free-thinking Accademia degli incogniti, who was unprecedented in setting the actions of real-life historical figures in this racy account of Poppea sleeping her way to the top. Monteverdi's score is as vivid as the text, and Wilson's cool treatment seemed sure to douse Poppea's flame.

I was wrong to doubt. Pared-down sets and minimal stagework draw eyes and ears forward in concentration. Whilst the text is at times searingly erotic, Nero and Poppea never touch, and their straightjacketed passion serves to notch up the tension. We become hyper-sensitive observers alive to subtle gestural adjustments. The energy shifts around the stage through the chatter of physical snapshots, so that when Poppea turns her arms to Ottone, we know that she is leading him on. With little in the way visual distraction, the expressivity of the music draws us in and we are lost in a nuanced exploration of Monteverdi's score.

Subtitles were largely redundant thanks to the ultra-clear, endlessly characterful delivery of the vocal parts. Leonardo Cortellazzi brought spluttering declamations of indignation to Nero's part, whilst Andrea Concetti's rooted bass had all of the required gravitas for the role of Seneca. Sara Mingardo was the star booking on Baroque lovers' lips, though Monica Bacelli's broad-voiced Ottavia proved the casting coup.

Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nerone), Miah Persson (Poppea) and Monica Bacelli (Ottavia) © Lucie Jansch
Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nerone), Miah Persson (Poppea) and Monica Bacelli (Ottavia)
© Lucie Jansch

Miah Persson demonstrated that she is a musician of great standing. Poppea's mellifluous lines were sculpted with well-judged precision, and she enjoyed a special affinity with the musicians around her. False relations would hang in the air before evaporating in a plume of smoke.  

The work's comic portions had felt sure to suffer under the seemingly rigid direction of Wilson. Instead they made us choke with laughter. Adriana di Paola conjured an overripe wench for Arnalta with swinging hips and bawdy jerks. Irrepressible Pugliese Baroque tenor Giuseppe de Vittorio produced a masterclass in comic delivery in the role of Nurse. Laughter, eroticism and great music – La Scala's Poppea ticks every box. If you can make it to one of the remaining shows, you won't be disappointed.

****1