Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea begins (as many good things do) with three proud goddesses quarrelling: Fortune, Virtue and Love. In fact, it’s Fortune and Virtue who quarrel: Love simply turns up and interrupts them, asserting absolute superiority over Fortune, Virtue and the universe, and then proving it by making the beautiful Poppea Nero’s mistress, then his wife, and ultimately Empress of the Roman Empire, in a single day. All who oppose Poppea’s rise, no matter how virtuous or influential, are killed or exiled. Premiered at the 1643 Venice Carnival, Monteverdi’s final work is one of the first operas to use historical events and people, though with wry irony: history shows this ultimate-Cinderella scenario to be a hollow sham, for soon after her glorious ascension into the Imperial Family, the real, pregnant Poppaea Sabina was kicked to death by Nero, his overpowering love paving his way to his ultimate insanity.

Stephanie Marshall (Nero) and  Lizzie Holmes (Poppea) © Emma Lambe
Stephanie Marshall (Nero) and Lizzie Holmes (Poppea)
© Emma Lambe

There are, therefore, two serious tasks for anyone who puts on The Coronation of Poppea: first, the sensuality between Poppea and Nerone must be electric. This is an opera which speaks much of love, but is powered by the raw energy of attraction, which it examines in all its forms, both in the central relationship between the Emperor and his mistress, and also in the translated, reflected love stories among lesser characters. Nero, meanwhile, must be both sane enough for Poppea and the audience to love, and yet imply the dark seeds of his madness and despotism to come. Ryedale Festival Opera’s version, in a clear and lyrical new translation by John Warrack, absolutely understands Monteverdi’s sophisticated agenda: and, with a talented cast in director Nina Brazier’s capable hands, resoundingly succeeds on all levels, giving us an evening of luxurious beauty, abandoned sensuality and superb characterisation.

Sophie Mosberger’s minimalist design is a constant, ingenious delight, using three large boxes (which become plinths, beds, tables, desks, or benches in swift and articulate scene-changes) and three mannequins to genuinely original and creative effect. With so many small, distinct scenes, a sense of place could easily be lost or smudged, but Mosberger’s strategic grip ensures we know instantly where we are at all times. And her creativity does not end with the stage: in a brilliant touch, Lucano (Gwilym Bowen) steals Ian Tindale’s harpsichord, moving it onto the stage for his drunken song contest with Nerone. While comic interplay between musicians and singers at this turn of events is hilarious, the exceptional skill displayed by Bowen (who impressed in all four of his roles), as he accompanies himself for his duet, is virtuosic. When not having their instruments stolen, Orchestra Eboracum Baroque (conducted by Christopher Glynn) give us a thoroughly enjoyable, sensitive accompaniment, though timing could have been crisper.  

Lizzie Holmes makes a fabulous Poppea: playful, but brimming with erotic power. In a magnetic performance, Holmes explored Poppea’s fears and hopes with charismatic flair. Stephanie Marshall is wonderful as Nerone, employing brilliantly-observed male body language, flicking from soft caresses to brutal executions with psychotic calm, exactly as this character requires, and always singing with fluent dexterity. Holmes and Marshall come alive in their scenes together, leaving us in no doubt of the lovers’ intoxicating, obsessive passion, and Nerone’s terrible potential. Their final duet, the famous “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo”, is ravishing.

Maria Ostroukhova (Fortune), Rose Stachniewska (Virtue) and Caroline Kennedy (Love) © Emma Lambe
Maria Ostroukhova (Fortune), Rose Stachniewska (Virtue) and Caroline Kennedy (Love)
© Emma Lambe

Maria Ostroukhova makes a brooding, bitter Ottavia, whose anguish at being abandoned by Nero we can genuinely believe; Ostroukhova also opens the opera in great style as a wonderfully imperious Fortune. Tom Morss, in drag as her nurse Nutrice, provides a witty foil to Ottavia’s grim gloom, complete with lumbago, corns and earthy advice which provokes much laughter. Rosie Aldridge, meanwhile, wins the audience utterly with her warm-voiced, joyously comic Arnalta, Poppea’s protective nurse, complete with hat and eye-dabbing handkerchief at her darling’s triumphant coronation. Also providing much playful comic energy is Caroline Kennedy, who doubles Love and Valletto with exuberant energy, playing the naughty little boy each time with an affecting mixture of vulnerability and mischief.

Monteverdi also examines compromised or imperfect love, in the shape of Poppea’s spurned husband Ottone (a honey-voiced Ben Williamson) and his alternative option, the long-hopeful Drusilla (Rebecca Van den Berg), whose desperate competition to die for one another when their murder plot goes wrong earns them the unusual privilege of Nerone’s mercy. Rebecca Van den Berg gives Drusilla a depth of character and lyricism which make her story truly moving. James Fisher is a deep-voiced and ponderous Seneca, giving a good sense of the philosopher’s separation from the dissolute madness of Roman society in his calm acceptance of death. Seneca’s Friends’ trio (always a highlight) is moving and well sung by Morss, Rose Stachniewska and Timothy Murphy.  In smaller roles, Charmian Bedford and Rose Stachniewska constantly impress, Bedford as Damigella, Pallade, and Venus, Stachniewska as Virtue, Seneca’s second Friend and a Cupid.

Monteverdi ends his opera on an ecstatic high with “Pur ti miro”; in his ironic vision of history, he also embraced its truth. Pliny tells us that, at the real Poppaea’s funeral, Nero burned a full year’s Arabian incense production: the Emperor’s grief for her was, in the end, as exorbitant as his passion.