City Recital Hall
November 30, 2017

In an opera marked by violence, an invented moment during the prologue stuck in the mind. Arnalta, played to perfection by a fabulous, towering Kanen Breen, is thrown down and humiliated by Nerone’s henchmen, kicked in the genitals in a brutal policing of her gendered self-presentation. Director Mark Gaal here introduces the volatile gender and sexual politics of this updated Rome with a fearlessness to be admired. The bickering gods Fortuna, Virtù, and Amore manifest as the homeless in this staging, able to navigate the same space as humans without being seen precisely because they are the ignored and displaced.

Jake Arditti and Helen Sherman. Photo: supplied

The pomp and circumstance of ancient Rome, all lush velvet and architectural magnificence in the imagination, is replaced with a set resembling nothing so much as a seedy underpass, while Nerone and his men are costumed in baggy pants and garish Varsity jackets – you can practically smell the Lynx body spray radiating off them in droves.

A bold production then, yet not without its problems – small things bugged, as when in the final moment of the piece Poppea was locked into the spectacle she had created for herself by velvet rope. It is at this point obvious that Poppea, no matter how beautiful, intelligent or manipulative, will not always remain a match for Nerone’s tempestuousness, nor keep his attention for long – she too will be cast out. This was an unfortunately heavy-handed gesture that threatened to take away from the mostly subtle, thoughtful staging.

Helen Sherman. Photo: supplied

In the title role, mezzo Helen Sherman brought a meltingly lovely tone and formidable stage presence to her Poppea, yet Poppea remains one of those ever-elusive characters that require most everything in a singing actor’s arsenal. Here she came off as more anonymous than one would have liked, ever affirming her ambition through speech but never really letting the audience glimpse the reasons behind her cut-throat drive. Despite this, Sherman was appropriately insinuating, phrasing like a star and mastering the difficult half arioso-half recitative singing that Monteverdi requires, her pink bejewelled jumpsuit like a sheath of armour against the world.

Impetuous and profligate, an individual at the beck and call of his appetites, countertenor Jake Arditti’s coke-snorting Nerone was a pleasure to behold, slack-jawed with lust one minute then vibrating with violence the next. Though not entirely comfortable with some of the more florid writing or high tessitura of the part, Arditti yet gave a satisfying, terrifying reading of a ruler drunk on power and blind to his own manipulation by Poppea. The casual cruelty with which he flung out the line “Ottavia e infrigidata, e infeconda” (Ottavia is frigid and barren) was perfectly judged.

Jake Arditti. Photo: supplied 

Owen Willets’ well-realised Ottone was by turns besotted, entitled, and cringingly snivelly. It’s by no means an easy role to pull off, and something of a thankless one, but Willets charted his character’s journey well and sung nobly, wielding a gorgeously rich tone that sometimes came at the expense of good Italian diction, so crucial in Monteverdi. Kanen Breen, striding the stage in six-inch, knee-high patent leather lace-up boots, brought real heart and pathos to his wisdom-espousing Arnalta, delivering the act two lullaby with a keen sense of legato and with a mind to the aria’s overall shape.

Kanen Breen. Photo: supplied

Meanwhile, David Greco brought his attractive oaken baritone to the role of Seneca, here garbed in a Hawaiian shirt and wearing boat shoes. Even in his final moments, Greco played Seneca as an individual steeped in the performative, unable to articulate a truth without resorting to sanctimony or self-righteousness. A character often played straight, here the philosopher turned guru was simply an extension of the seedy, glitzy vapidness of this concrete Rome, his death brutal and right.

Pulling the strings as Amore, Roberta Diamond’s fluid, crystalline soprano was a joy, her athletic, diminutive stage presence bringing to life this rough and tumble Cupid. But the beating heart of this production was Natalie Christie Peluso, doing double duty as a wonderfully vengeful Ottavia and naïve Drusilla (she also gave voice to Virtù in the opera’s prologue). Nearly four centuries later, there are few moments in opera as breathtaking in its emotional truth and rawness of sentiment as when Ottavia laments the lot of women, describing how they give birth to their own oppressors: “born free by the will of nature and heaven,/we are made slaves by marriage…if the child we conceive is male,/we shape the limbs of our own evil/tyrant”. Strongly realised, her Ottavia is at once vulnerable, spiteful and repulsive in her abjection and fury, her threatening of Ottone (she will accuse him of raping her if he does not kill Poppea) truly ugly, resonating uncomfortably with this particular political moment.

Otherwise, Drusilla can be a bit of a wet blanket but in Peluso’s capable hands was brought off sympathetically. Taken in by Ottone yet admirable in her defense of him, noble even as she entreats him to water her grave with tears of pity, if not love, Peluso’s attractively dark, grainy instrument was appropriately lightened and more ringing when singing Drusilla, turning in not one but two star turns.

Natalie Christie Peluso. Photo: supplied

Leading the way from the harpsichord was Erin Helyard and the Orchestra of the Antipodes, giving a deeply musical, well-paced account of Monteverdi’s music. Flowing effortlessly from mood to shifting mood while remaining taut and sprightly, their playing gave the impression that they were breathing with the singers themselves.

Coronation of Poppea plays at City Recital Hall until December 6.


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