There’s no doubt that a tale about a power-hungry nymphomaniac who seduces an infamous Roman emperor is guaranteed to get opera lovers salivating. Add to that the prospect of some of early opera’s most expressive music, including a swoon-worthy final duet and the proposition seems irresistible.
The current production of The Coronation of Poppea by Lyric Opera of Melbourne is alive to the theatrical and musical possibilities of Monteverdi’s last opera. Arrestingly, the first sounds to be heard are not those of the composer, but of some trashy, 21st-century dance music. Enter two drag queens, clearly the worse for wear. Fortune (Robert Macfarlane) and Virtue (Hew Wagner) are discussing who’s top dog (or is that god)? Director Tyran Parke clearly establishes the impotence of these deities from the outset, as the flawed mortals of the story are often appealing to them for heavenly patronage. Amor then appears on the scene. Sung by Alison Lemoh, this pivotal character is not cast here as a boyish Cupid, but as a conniving, worldly wise femme fatale who is in no doubt of her superiority and her ability to alter the course of history.
Rebecca Rashleigh and Nicholas Jones in Lyric Opera of Melbourne’s The Coronation of Poppea. Photos © Sarah Walker
Once the short, seamy prologue is out of the way, our attention is drawn to an oversize wardrobe dominating the set designed by Robert Sowinski, Dann Barber and Bryn Cullen. (It reminded me of the Victorian State Opera production of Figaro back in the 90s.) This ample armoire does not contain a countess’s empties, but rather, opens to reveal Nero and Poppea’s love nest. Confidently and convincingly sung by Nicholas Jones and Rebecca Rashleigh, the amorous duo projects all the lust and greed at the rotten core of the story.
Rebecca Rashleigh and Alison Lemoh
Purists may purse their lips at the casting of Nero, Fortune and Virtue as tenors, but the performance history of Poppea has always been one of pragmatism, as the various adaptations and transpositions in the surviving sources make clear. All these singers sang with great clarity and empathy, Macfarlane and Wagner enjoying their direction to provide a comic element as well as doubling in myriad minor roles. Full of tyrannical bluster and naked lust, Jones was a credible Nero.
On the side of goodness, countertenor Nicholas Tolputt is well cast as Ottone, Poppea’s scorned, milk-sop of a lover. As the only principal countertenor in the production (and in this repertoire there could have been plenty more) Tolputt’s voice type becomes an aural signal for virtue. He is well partnered with the vocally and dramatically secure Elizabeth Stannard-Cohen as Drusilla, Ottone’s accomplice and ultimate love.
Caroline Vercoe as the spurned empress Ottavia effectively communicates all the agony, incomprehension, jealousy and rage that surges through her character. Damien Whiteley brings appropriate gravity to the role of Seneca. Bernard Leon spends a long time on stage as a tacit, menacing presence before ably acquitting his cameo as Mercury.
Robert Macfarlane and Hew Wagner
The musical challenges of mounting a production of Poppea are essentially the same as they were back in the mid 1600s. Given the sketchy musical sources that have survived, each company must trim its musical cloth to suit the resources at hand. On the instrumental side, musical director Pat Miller has opted for a large continuo group which comprises harpsichord, grand piano, electronic keyboard, cello and theorbo/guitar. Supplementing this core is a flute and violin which are used too sparingly.
For a work that has about 160 minutes of music I would have welcomed greater variety in the instrumental accompaniment to underline the sung texts. Also the accompaniment could have better spotlighted key moments in the drama, such as Amor’s intervention to prevent Ottone assassinating Poppea. If only the electronic keyboard from which Miller conducted could have emitted more appealing sounds rather than sounding like a murky Hammond organ.
Miller handled the pacing of this lengthy work well, even if there were a few slightly uncoordinated moments. Parke and the singers worked well together to keep the long flow of material involving, especially in the second half. Some greater contrasts in lighting may have supported this aim.
While both the scenario and the music of Poppea are a seductive proposition, as the opera confirms, seduction is not without its problems. Lyric Opera’s production tells the story in a colourful and attractive way but some further enlivening of the musical accompaniment and the visual element would have made the three-hour experience on bleacher-style seating even more user-friendly.
Lyric Opera of Melbourne’s The Coronation of Poppea is at Chapel Off Chapel, Prahran until July 22.