The Coronation of Poppea | Victorian OperaPhotos - Jeff Busby

Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea
is a tale of ambition and manipulation intertwined with love and passion – the perfect recipe for drama. Poppea is a fiery, determined woman who uses her sexuality to secure the throne. Director Kate Cherry draws parallels between Poppea and Paris Hilton - Monteverdi seems to have captured the timeless essence of excess mixed with passion and desire for power.

The Victorian Opera Company is dedicated to providing greater access to, and educating more Victorians about opera, not only as entertainment but also as an art form. Music director, Richard Gill, possesses a tangible enthusiasm and passion for the operatic repertoire – beginning the performance by emphasising how the performance, in terms of the musical elements, tries to emulate the way in which the work would have first been performed. Musically, the performance was delightful, with the harpsichord immediately evoking the atmosphere of 17th century Europe. Gill’s enthusiasm was evident in the energy and refined skill of the small ensemble.

The sinister atmosphere created musically was reflected in Richard Roberts’ clever all black set design. The stark blackness of the design suggested the celebrity mansions of today, while creating a striking contrast with Poppea’s crimson gown. A wall of light-sensitive glass used to conceal and reveal was used very effectively to emphasise deception and manipulation. The striking contrast between the music and set design created a beautiful balance which broke the mould of opera as a museum piece, so often disconnected from our contemporary reality.

An interesting aspect of the scoring for this opera is that Nerone, the king of Rome, was originally written for a castrato, as was the character of Ottone, both Poppea and Drusilla’s lover. Surprisingly, David Hansen as Nerone and Daniel Goodwin as Ottone replicate the sound of the castrati (how I do not know!). During the 17th century the practice of writing music for castrati was very popular, as they possessed incredible vocal ability which was unparalleled by a female soprano. To a contemporary audience however, the castrati sound used by the two male leads in this production suggests the characters’ spoilt youth in comparison to Poppea’s (Tiffany Speight) rich warmth of tone which emphasises her experience and maturity. The similarity of tone with contrasting physicality was, at first, slightly disconcerting but ultimately created an interesting pair of lovers with brilliantly delicate harmonies between the two voices.

However, the lack of subtly in the relationship between Nerone and Poppea meant that the relationship and the tension building up to the end of the opera, when Poppea is crowned, was also lacking. The image of the lovers in the third act, circling each other but separated by the wall of glass, lost all power after numerous scenes of awkward groping.
The performance highlights were found in some of the supporting and minor roles, in particular Jacqueline Porter as Drusilla who created a beautifully complex character with a lovely voice which was both rich and shimmering. Edmund Choo in the minor roles of Liberto and Seneca’s friend was another highlight with a resonant voice and strong stage presence.

The Victorian Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea was a unique performance experience, which from the sound of the applause (some of the loudest and most enthusiastic I have heard in a long time!) was thoroughly enjoyed by the audience. Despite some of its problems, the production created a lovely balance between allowing Monteverdi’s music to be realised in its original form while creating a world strangely recognisable to a contemporary audience.

Victorian Opera presents
The Coronation of Poppea

sung in Italian with English surtitles

Venue: South Melbourne Town Hall
Dates/Times: 7:30pm Friday July 18, 5:30pm Sunday July 20, and 7:30pm Tuesday 22, Thursday 24 and Saturday 26
Tickets: A-Reserve Full $85 (Conc $68) and B-Reserve Full $53 (Conc $42).
Duration: Three hours including one twenty-minute interval
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

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