Claudio Monteverdi was employed by Victor Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua, but was dismissed from the court when his son Francesco Gonzaga took title in 1612. Monteverdi moved to Venice to take up the appointment of Director of Music at St Mark’s Basilica. With some of his earlier operas lost when Mantua was sacked by Austrian troops, the opening of the first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassino, rekindled Monteverdi’s enthusiasm. He wrote L’incoronazione di Poppea in his 70s, towards the end of his life, and lived to see it performed at the 1642 carnival – yet curiously the opera received little further attention until a revival of interest in the 1960s. Rather than setting a piece purely for mythological characters, Monteverdi based this story on real people in Nero’s Rome, where love is allowed to triumph at the expense of morality. Ancient Rome was a brutal place.

© Ken Dundas
© Ken Dundas

The simple story of Poppea is presented by Amore, God of Love, to settle an argument between Fortune and Virtue. Ottone, one of Nerone’s henchmen, is courting Poppea, but she is having an affair with the Emperor. Nerone’s wife Ottavia is understandably less than happy, yet is warned by Nerone’s advisor Seneca to accept the situation with restraint. Poppea sees Seneca as a barrier to her marrying Nerone whom she decides must be killed. A further complication arrives in the form of Ottone’s former lover Drusilla, sending him into a spin of indecision as he tries to balance his affections for both women. Ottavia’s fury seethes and she now commands Ottone to kill Poppea, which, disguised as Drusilla, he almost manages – but Amore steps in to save his hand from the deed at the last minute. Ottavia is divorced and banished and Poppea is duly crowned.

One of the delights of this opera is that each main character comes with a troupe of servants, followers or minders, who not only comment on the action, but provide many sub-plots to the main story.

Mark Hathaway’s intimate, pocket-sized production is part of The Opera Project at the Conservatoire. Set sparsely on narrow, long rostra in front of the musicians, with another separate platform set amidst the 80 of us in a capacity audience, the experience was particularly thrilling as the singers were literally within touching distance. There were a few props here and there, which threw the pressure on the singers to tell us the story through voices and acting. Hazel Blue’s detailed and often mischievous costumes certainly helped, as there were no togas in this Roman tale. The Gods were dressed in many shades of glittery grey, with tattoos and bare skin sparkling in the bright cold white lighting from Grant Anderson which always accompanied their presence. The Mortals were in modern attire, Nerone in a power trouser-suit with henchmen built and dressed like Glasgow club bouncers, but with guns. Serone was depicted as a dry academic and was dressed in a brown tweed suit, so stiff it would have probably been able to stand up on its own. His acolytes were in autumnal-coloured waistcoats with bow ties and identical earnest tortoiseshell big-framed glasses. They always appeared in order of height, writing their master’s wise words in notebooks. At one point, as Nerone knotted his grey tie and Poppea blindfolded and tied him to a chair before pulling out a set of handcuffs, there was clearly a playful big nod to the bestseller list.

The story was well told, and after the Gods set the scene on stage and in amongst the musicians, it was morning in ancient Rome. Flame-haired Nerone was getting dressed for the day and Poppea, fresh out of the adulterous bed, glided round the set holding a sheet round her; Ottone, wearing a baseball cap and travel bag with Eiffel Tower stickers, arrived back from a trip abroad, and Ottavia raged about her lot and sought counsel from her attendants. There was a lot of detail to like, particularly when the servants took on the main characters: “I will burn your beard and set fire to your library”, sang Ottavia’s bold boyish Valletto (valet) as he pulled out a lighter and threatened the bookish Serone. Nerone’s loutish henchmen snorted cocaine from the top of Serone’s black coffin.

The singing in Italian was very good all round, and so although it’s a little unfair to single out individuals, there were standout performances from Catriona Morison in lovely powerful voice as Nerone, Andrew Tipple’s warm and steady bass as Seneca, Laura Margaret Smith as the wronged Ottavia and Hazel McBain’s plucky Valletto, head over heels in young love with Damigella, Ottavia’s maid.

On stage behind the singers, Timothy Dean conducted a small period band from his double-manual harpsichord, which included James Ackers on a massive theorbo, a second harpsichord, Baroque strings (magnificent continuo from cellist James Tradgett), and a chamber organ. It took a little while to get used to the authentic sounds, particularly the upper strings, but the players supported the singers well in an opera where they get just enough help from the musicians to build their own performances.

The famous duet between Poppea and Nerone as she is crowned Empress comes at the end of the opera, and we were not disappointed as Jessica Leary and Catriona Morison, often standing on separate rostra, touched fingertips across the distance, giving a magical finish to the production. This was an enjoyable evening, as opera done well, up this close and personal, is both exciting and addictive.