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Review: The Coronation of Poppea at the Newcastle Theatre Royal

Monteverdi's last opera of corruption and revenge dazzles 350 years after it was first performed in Venice

****
A scene from The Coronation Of Poppea performed by Opera North
A scene from The Coronation Of Poppea performed by Opera North

The Coronation of Poppea, Opera North, Newcastle Theatre Royal

Although set in ancient Rome, this last opera by Monteverdi (and collaborators) was first performed in Venice in 1643, but its dazzling musical display of glitter and corruption fits in well with our own self-obsessed celebrity society.

The plot fictionalises historical events, where Emperor Nero replaces his first wife with a seductive new model, Poppea, but adds the odd rejected lover, planned revenge killing and dash of transvestism.

Musically, this is a million miles from the soupy grandeur of much classic opera, being full of tinkling beads of sound, sharp-edged drops that tremble on the edge of dissonance before blending into harmony.

Gloriously sung and played, it was a huge bonus to see the musicians, complete with harpsichords, gamba and theorbos, performing on stage instead of tucked away in the pit.

Otherwise, the staging was sadly unengaging, the extravagance of Nero’s court represented by an industrial, brick-lined space (an empty swimming pool?) furnished with a stark metal table.

As with most early opera, characters tend to sing about what they are going to do rather than actually doing it, so a static production was inevitable.

However, attempts to avoid this involved erotic grapplings (on that table), pools of blood-red petals and an unscripted touch of murder at the end.

Some (such as a fridge full of blood) were effective, others quite unnecessary.

No matter – the voices were fantastic, especially counter-tenor James Laing as a willowy blonde Nero, seeping neurotic cynicism even during the most exquisite love duets.

Sandra Piques Eddy’s Poppea was an irresistable 1950s sex-kitten, numbingly aware by the end that she was in over her head.

Some of the best arias, however, go to Nero’s tutor Seneca (a convincingly tweedy James Creswell) and Poppea’s nurse Arnalta (Fiona Kimm), and in both cases their performance was impeccable.

Gail-Nina Anderson

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