L’incoronazione di Poppea, Barbican Hall

The opera was first performed in 1642.
Drawn from the annals of Tacitus, Francesco Busenello’s libretto for
Monteverdi’s final opera reflects the mid-seventeenth-century Venetian
Republic’s rejection of the mores of courtly aristocracy and its taste for
earthy, popular themes.

Set in the reign of Nero, it depicts the irresistible power and tragic
pathos of human love, as the passion of Nero and Poppea ruthlessly sweeps aside
all hindrances and finds ultimate fulfillment in the Queen’s coronation. In
the Prologue which precedes the three Acts, Fortuna, Virt˘ and Amor dispute
which of them has most power. In this richly sensory and sensual performance by
the Academy of Ancient Music under the musical direction of Robert Howarth,
there was no doubt that Amor is justified in claiming victory.

Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson directed what was billed as a
semi-staged performance: in fact, since there is little stage incident, there
really was no need for a fuller staging. The ascending pyramid of chairs, raked
behind the small, centrally placed forces of the Academy of Ancient Music,
conveyed both the rigid hierarchies of the Roman Empire and the irresistible
force of Poppea’s desire to reach the pinnacle of power. Evocative lighting
emphasised the highs and lows of human conduct and morality (there were just a
few moments when synchronicity of lighting design and dramatic action were less
than perfect). The ritual formality of the performers’ first entrance
combined with the bright, present-day costumes drew attention both to the
historical reality and the astonishingly modern relevance of the drama. And, as
characters pondered, plotted and interacted in the spacious forestage area, and
moved at times among the audience, we were presented with a convincing, wide
array of temperamental aspects of humanity.

The opera begins with the unexpected return of Ottone, Poppea’s husband,
whom Nero has despatched to far realms on state business. Iestyn Davies,
dressed in a white linen suit which suggested his simple loyalty and also his
inherent weakness, was wonderfully expressive in his opening monologue, ‘Ah,
perfida Poppea’. Lamenting his wife’s betrayal he swung persuasively
between pain and wrath. Fully appreciating the way that Monteverdi’s
innovative forms and intensely responsive musical language convey emotion,
Davies skilfully communicated the later change in Ottone’s character. Despite
recognising his fidelity, Poppea rejects Ottone’s love, in submission to her
vaulting ambition, and Davies’ subsequent monologue of murderous intent was
intensely dramatic. There were also some fine duets between Ottone and
Drusilla, sung with warmth and brightness by soprano Sophie Junker. Junker’s
joyful vivacity later gave way to tender reflection when their plot to kill
Poppea was uncovered: confessing before Nero, in order to save Ottone from the
Emperor’s wrath, Junker was both sensuous and vulnerable. Nero’s command
that the plotters be exiled seemed a fair judgement.

Matthew Rose used his capacious bass intelligently as Seneca, the
Emperor’s wise advisor, modulating his tone to convey both moral
imperiousness and human humility. His warning to Ottavia to maintain her
dignity and virtue in the face of Nero’s betrayal was beautifully phrased; in
welcoming death, ‘Venga, venga la morte’, Rose inspired both admiration and
pity. In a powerful scene with Sarah Connolly’s commanding Nero, the rapid
exchanges had an impressive rhetorical power; both Rose and Connolly exhibited
flexibility and control as the ever-changing line lengths conveyed the
accumulating emotional force. In contrast, Seneca’s household’s sad
farewell to their master had the expressive grace of a madrigal.

Tenor Andrew Tortise was striking as Poppea’s Nurse Arnalta. In the scene
in which Arnalta warns her old charge to beware Ottavia’s vengeance, there
was a striking contrast between Tortise’s calm wisdom and the fury of Lynne
Dawson’s Poppea. Tortise sang the Nurse’s lullaby with gentle sweetness,
but also injected a well-judged comic note in the final scene.

Mezzo-soprano Marina de Liso was superb as Ottavia: with finely nuanced
phrasing and dark timbre she portrayed a truly regal suffering. In both of her
principal arias, ‘Disprezzata regina’ and ‘A Dio Roma’, de Liso’s
flexible declamation communicated the changing emotions within a lyrical
continuity; chromatic nuances emphasised the pathos of her tragedy — it was
easy to believe and understand contemporary reports of the power of
Monteverdi’s music to stir the affections of his audiences and move them to

This was a stellar cast and the principals were matched by fine singing in
the minor roles. Tenor Gwilym Bowen, as Valletta and the First Soldier, moved
and sang with naturalness, and demonstrated a pleasing, focused upper register.
His comic scene with Daniela Lehner’s Damigella was a delightful moment of
frothy light relief. Lehner also sang Amor, and having protected Poppea from
Ottone’s murderous plot, gloried lustrously from the balcony.

Which brings us to the central passion-driven pair. With Anna Caterina
Antonacci unable to take the role of Poppea as planned, Lynne Dawson might have
seemed a strange choice of replacement. There’s no doubt that Dawson has had
a varied and highly successful career over more than 30 years. Though best
known for her Handel interpretations she has excelled in diverse repertoire;
but, of late, it has been teaching, as head of vocal and opera studies at the
Royal Northern College of Music, rather than singing which has been her focus.
And, as the self-righteous, adulterous Roman queen, Dawson could not
consistently summon the necessary vocal lustre. Although displaying a seductive
lyricism when charming Nero to submit to her wish to have Seneca killed, her
soprano lacked real, consistent weight and tone, and there were some technical
blemishes in phrasing and tuning. This was a pity as it weakened the
credibility of Nero’s passionate, single-minded commitment to his mistress.

Fittingly, Sarah Connolly was utterly authoritative and vocally imposing as
the Roman tyrant, Nero. Responsive to every musical detail, physically
commanding of presence, gleaming of tone and delivering Monteverdi’s
organically evolving structures with sensitivity and suppleness, Connolly was a
consummate portrait in blind self-conviction and egoistic assurance. Nero’s
ecstatic celebrations following Seneca’s death possessed a wild beauty which
was both seductive and deeply unsettling. In Connolly’s subsequent duet with
Elmar Gilbertsson’s excellent Lucano, she demonstrated and effortless, florid
vocal virtuosity, sculpting a highly dramatic idiom with repeated exclamations
and exultations as Nero rejoices in Poppea’s beauty.

Directing the instrumentalists of the Academy of Ancient Music, Robert
Howarth (replacing the indisposed Richard Egarr) created a ceaseless flow of
recitative, arias, duets, trios and laments, forming exciting contrasts. As
Monteverdi’s formal arrangements constantly evolved, Howarth’s flexible
control of tempo perfectly reflected the score’s changeability of mood and
allowed for the ‘side-actions’ to be smoothly incorporated into the main
plot. The wonderfully expressive theorbo playing of William Carter and Alex
McCartney was punctuated by instrumental accompaniments which were by turns
lyrical and lithe; there was some biting concitato incisiveness in the
scene for the soldiers and during the interrogation of Drusilla before Nero.

Throughout the performance, the capacity audience were held transfixed,
unmoving and utterly captivated. The seventeenth century aspiration to (in the
words of Monteverdi’s biographer Leo Schrade) speak to the passions of men
— and to depict the human reality of those passions in conflict — was
wonderfully fulfilled.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Lynne Dawson, Poppea; Sarah Connolly, Nerone; Sophie Junker,
Drusilla/Virtu; Daniela Lehner’ Amore/Damigella; Marina de Liso, Ottavia;
Matthew Rose, Seneca; Iestyn Davies, Ottone; Andrew Tortise, Arnalta; Vicki St
Pierre, Nutrice; Elmar Gilbertsson, Lucano/2nd Soldier; Gwilym Bowen,
Valletto/1st Soldier/Highest Familiari; Richard Latham, Liberto/Middle
Familiari; Charmian Bedford, Fortuna; Phillip Tebb, Littore/Bass Familiari;
Robert Howarth, director; Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson, stage directors;
Academy of Ancient Music. Barbican Hall,
London, Saturday, 4 th October 2014.

image_description=Claudio Monteverdi
product_title=L’incoronazione di Poppea, Academy of Ancient Music, Barbican Hall, London, 4th October 2014
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Claudio Monteverdi