Lyric Opera: The Coronation of Poppea

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Published: 19th July, 2017

For their second and final offering for 2017, Lyric Opera has once again drawn upon and nurtured the skills of Australian singers, musicians and creative artists. Rather than choosing an unjustly neglected relatively modern work, as has been the case recently, conductor Pat Miller and his team have prepared a version of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1643 Baroque masterpiece, The Coronation of Poppea, that provides an imaginative exploration of the storyline while respecting Monteverdi’s musical genius.

Giovanni Busenello’s libretto, based roughly on historical events, is generally viewed in terms of the triumph of Love (or even Lust and Greed) over Virtue. Venetian audiences of the time would have known, however, that marital bliss for Poppea and Nero would not last long and they would get their comeuppance in the near future.

Finding inspiration in the Fellini films of the 60s, director Tyran Parke has worked with his design team to blend costumes from that era with a surreal staging that transcends a particular time and place. A gigantic closet, with folding doors that are opened and closed for various scene changes, dominates the simple set. In the background, the sumptuous folds of a vibrant red curtain suggest both passion and a theatrical world.

The Fellini influence is also apparent in the bitchy way the gods Fortune and Virtue, dressed as drag queens, battled for control of the action. It might seem almost sacrilegious to some that they were heralded by disco music, but the device had its validity. Mercifully, Monteverdi’s Prologue music quickly took over and the brilliance of the singing immediately reassured us that the vocal quality of this performance was going to be exceptionally high.

Robert Macfarlane’s performance alone is worth the price of the ticket. Anybody who heard him sing in the Monteverdi concert with Ludovico’s Band earlier this year would know that he is a consummate performer of this type of music. Excellent control of a most pleasing tenor voice, complemented by an ebullient personality, enabled him to commit himself totally to characterising the multiple roles he undertook in this production. You could say that he is a class act except that some of the business he indulged in was far from classy and very occasionally may have been just one step too far over the top. Despite this, his exuberance was irresistible.

His duet with tenor Nicholas Jones’s Nero culminated in a virtuosic celebration of Seneca’s enforced suicide. Both singers were at their blistering best in “Hor che Seneca è morto, cantiam”. Amidst the extravaganza of florid vocalising, Macfarlane took up a guitar and strummed along with unexpected proficiency. His refreshing lack of physical and vocal inhibition (suave tenor, coy falsetto and the odd shriek) made for an exciting theatrical experience. As Poppea’s nurse he sang the gentle lullaby “Oblivion soave” tenderly, sustaining the long phrases with superb breath control and a steady legato line. Rosemary Hodgeson’s theorbo accompaniment was a joy, and it was a pity that her position behind other more dominant instruments sometimes obscured her playing in other pieces.

Soprano Rebecca Rashleigh was a seductive Poppea, effectively combining genuine passion for Nero with naked ambition. Her voice was clear, true, flexible and well projected at all times, even when Parke’s direction called for significant physical exertion, including during the final duet. “Pur ti miro” is probably the most familiar piece of music by Monteverdi and renowned for being one of the most beautiful pieces of music sung by two of the most horrible people of all time. If it is sung well, as was the case in this performance, the horrible part is forgotten and the beauty can be savoured. Initially a little restrained, Nicholas Jones was warmer to Poppea as his wife than his mistress. He possesses an attractively virile tenor voice and is blessed with looks to match.

Nero’s discarded wife Ottavia appears to be a tragic figure until she plots to have Poppea murdered. Caroline Vercoe brought passion to a role that lurches between despair and vengeful rage, investing the final “Addio Roma” with considerable pathos. It served to arouse compassion for her plight and counterbalance her evil manipulation of one of the most sympathetic characters in the opera: Poppea’s rejected former lover, Ottone. In this role, Nicholas Tolputt’s gentle counter-tenor voice and warm musicality, coupled with a restrained but earnest portrayal of emotional turmoil were much appreciated by the audience on opening night.

As the self-sacrificing Drusilla, Poppea’s maid, who in turn suffers the pangs of unrequited love for Ottone, Elizabeth Stannard-Cohen sang and acted with assurance, her bright soprano negotiating florid passages with agility.

Damian Whiteley was a sonorous Seneca, although approximate intonation was sometimes evident. Alison Lemoh was a glowing presence as Amor, and Hew Wagner used his reliable tenor to admirable effect as Virtue. Both he and Bernard Leon, who sang the role of Mercury, joined Lemoh in lurking around corners and generating the atmosphere of intrigue essential to the storyline.

With a band of only eight instruments and alarming limited rehearsal, Pat Miller has by some feat of wizardry conjured a coherent and often stylish performance. His careful selection of highly talented singers, most of them in the early stages of their careers, is a major contributor to the success of this production and makes it one that should not be missed.

Heather Leviston reviewed Lyric Opera’s production of Poppea at Chapel Off Chapel on June 15, 2017.