Monteverdi’s 1643 opera, telling the story of the Emperor Nero and his lover Poppea, is one of earliest still in the classical repertory: this performance, in Trinity College Chapel, dealt well with its dramatic and musical challenges. Poppea was written too early for the arias common to later opera, so it can be difficult to stop the piece drifting into endless declamation. Director Sasha Amaya made Monteverdi’s dramaturgy fluid and involving, with striking tableaux of the actors and effective costumes and set. There were one or two choices which seemed odd or distracting – having Amore on stage, controlling the action throughout, worked when she was either more involved with the action or more unobtrusive, but not so well when the focus could have more usefully been on other characters.
As Ottavia, the wronged empress, Chloe Allison gave a standout performance. In a production which didn’t entirely know what to do with Monteverdi’s dramatic longueurs, Allison perceptibly raised the piece’s energy every time she was on stage, and was alive to the part’s every emotional potential. Also highly accomplished was Anna-Luise Wagner, as Amore. Although she didn’t have much to sing, her diction was perfectly clear and propulsive and her voice is strikingly coloured particularly in the middle and lower registers. She was the only actor to really have a go at conveying what the director’s note called ‘insolent young love and debauched extravagance’. Here it should be noted, that this was otherwise, given the director’s avowed intent, a curiously sexless production. Nero (Alice Webster) and Poppea (Lottie Greenhow) drifted out of focus a little: Greenhow sang very well, with the top of the voice pure and free, but could be a little stiff. Webster sounded a little pushed at the top of her range, but filled the space, and her and Greenhow’s voices blended beautifully.
Of the large cast, also notable was Louis Wilson as Seneca, who, along with Anna-Luise Wagner, made the most of the text – it’s a treat to hear the opera performed so well in Italian – and managed to bring Seneca to life as a sympathetic figure, when in this opera he can so easily seem dull. The orchestra, led by musical director Luke Fitzgerald from the harpsichord, was uniformly excellent, without fail: the tightness of ensemble was a delight. Fitzgerald drew a supple sound from the slender group, and the continuo group of Fitzgerald, Tadhg Sauvey and Daniel Frizzell was sensitive and wonderfully attuned to the singers.
The greatest flaw in this Poppea was that not all of the singers seemed to be committed dramatically, and some moments which should have been emotional climaxes – Nero’s condemnation of Seneca to death, particularly – didn’t come off quite as well as they could. Musically, however, this was a polished and accomplished performance, and greatly enjoyable to attend.