Barefoot Opera: L’incoronazione di Poppea

St Mary in the Castle, 11 November 2017

Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea seems uncomfortably relevant with its abuse of power and sex, moral corruption, disdain for the law and sudden death. In the key scene between Seneca and Nero, the Emperor makes it quite clear that the law is only for little people. Those who have power can do what they like – and they do.

That Monteverdi envelops his narrative in such wonderful music is all the more disturbing. At the end, evil is seen to triumph as the radiant final duet is given to the two most corrupt individuals, with no sense that they will ever suffer for their iniquities as would become the norm in later opera.

Jenny Miller’s production universalises the action and Vicky Turner’s costumes create a seemingly egalitarian, if corrupt, society where Poppea is literally the one scarlet woman. The production utilises the space at St Mary’s with subtlety and the voices never lose out regardless of where the singers are placed.

The large cast is drawn from strength with much exceptionally pleasing singing. Sarah Parkin’s Poppea is an easy foil for Lucilla Graham’s slippery Nerone, their voices aptly complementary and radiant in the final pages. Michal Aloni as Ottavia brings a sense of moral worth even as she is emotionally challenged by all around her. Her final scene is genuinely moving, but we know she is lucky to escape alive.  Of the two male leads, Tobias Odenwald lends vocal gravitas to Seneca and his height gives him added authority. By contrast Matthew Paine’s shifty Ottone highlights the ease with which moral laxity can set in. Whether Hannah Jones’ supportive Drusilla will ever be able to make anything of him is left to our imagination.

Of the many smaller parts the two soldiers, Vincent Martinez and Brian McAlea, are particularly impressive vocally and one wished they had more to do. Sarah Dunbar made much of three smaller parts, her acting ability matching a well-focused voice. Natasha Elliot surprised with her gentle comedy and clear articulation as the nurse Arnalta, a part normally taken by an aging tenor!

Lesley Anne Sammons and Nicholas Bosworth accompanied from keyboards which allowed us a range of instruments, with the harp/lute being particularly effective. They were joined by Lucy Mulgan on double bass and Evelyn Nallen on recorders to create a positive small ensemble and one which worked well within the warm acoustic.

There was a large and enthusiastic audience – a pleasure to report given the increasing number of high quality performances we are now experiencing in Hastings.