Review: The Coronation of Poppea, English Touring Opera, Snape Maltings, October 18

This masterpiece was written when Monteverdi was 75; only Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff are comparable achievements of old age. Francesco Busenello, generally regarded as the first major opera librettist, was a lawyer and former ambassador who knew a thing or two about life at court and political intrigue. As often happens in the real world and certainly in this work, virtue gets scant reward and the ending is largely one of widespread injustice but the emphasis on dramatic truth and real life emotions creates a gripping and credible experience.

James Conway’s setting in the Stalinist era, with a focus on the love and (ab)use of power, was sharp and convincing while Samal Blak’s bleakly functional wooden partitions created a succession of spaces for each new assignation and plot.

Singing and acting were, as we have come to expect from this company, excellent. The three counter-tenors, Jake Arditti, Russell Harcourt and Michal Czerniawski all distinguished themselves, the latter as Ottone, a successful man of action, but losing his bearings when confronted with determined women. Stuart Haycock and Nicholas Merryweather were effective henchmen and Piotr Lempa a noble, sacrificial Seneca, his florid runs neatly suggesting his philosophical musings.

In the role of Ottavia, Hannah Pedley’s clarity and accuracy combined to good effect, both in her personal anguish and in her cynical manipulation of Ottone. Hannah Sandison was bright and engaging as Virtue/Drusilla and John-Colyn Gyeantey created a memorable Arnalta as she relished her forthcoming advancement alongside Poppea. Helen Sherman neatly caught the menace of the Nerone/Stalin character, not immediately and obviously evil but gradually building his morally decaying empire. Paula Sides, already with a strong record of ETO performances, once again demonstrated her vocal and dramatic stature and versatility.

Michael Rosewell’s assured conducting and the spirited and precise playing of The Old Street Band were major contributions to an enjoyable and well received evening.

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Gareth Jones.

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