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Coronation of Poppea

Lynne Lancaster

Pinchgut's updating is thought provoking and vocally superb.
Coronation of Poppea

Image: Image: Pinchgut Opera's Coronation Of Poppea. Photo by Brett Boardman.

This is one of those productions that will strongly divide audiences and critics. While musically and vocally it’s absolutely superb, for me the updating of the narrative to reflect contemporary times doesn’t quite work. Some people absolutely loved it – others like me loved the music but were most disappointed in the staging.

Erin Helyard and the Orchestra of the Antipodes played Monteverdi’s exquisitely celestial music superbly and the singing was ravishing with fine ensemble work by all.

The set design by Charles Davis, of light, elegant grey spaces (which could also perhaps be a dangerous grungy concrete underpass or other section of the city) was terrific and flexible for all the scene changes as required.

The production of Coronation of Poppea is celebrating 450 years since the birth of Monteverdi, set in the decadent court of Ancient Rome. A story about the abuse of power cloaked in the name of love, The Coronation of Poppea, one of the first operas to have been based on historical figures, traces the scandalous liaison between scheming ambitious vulgar courtesan Poppea Sabina, and the madman and murderer Emperor Nero.

The story breaks from traditional literary and theatrical morality, as greed is rewarded while virtue ignored and punished. Nero and Poppea leave a trail of anguish and death in their wake as they stop at nothing to be together. In this updated version there is use of mobile phones, drug trafficking and digital cameras, and Nero and his gang of thuggish henchmen are portrayed as sinister tattooed heavies. The gods themselves (Virtue, Fortune, Love etc.) are portrayed as homeless, and able to invisibly maneuver in the same space as humans because they are the forgotten and ignored. The opening is disturbing and brutal – Arnalta (Kanen Breen) is violently attacked by Nero’s thuggish henchmen.

Helen Sherman has a commanding stage presence as the rather vulgar and blowsy at times, scheming and ruthlessly ambitious Poppea. She excellently reveals the many layers of her complex character. Her expressive voice soars in a powerful, sweeping wide range. It is hinted that eventually Poppea too, no matter how manipulative and beautiful, will be rejected by Nero.

Blonde, tattooed, coke-snorting Nero was impressively sung by counter-tenor Jake Arditti. Casually cruel and uncaring, impulsive and debauched – surrendering to his appetites – he is madly violent one moment, blinded by lust the next. He is a dangerous ruler high on power and seemingly unaware of how Poppea manipulates him.

Kanen Breen as Arnalta was terrific. At first rather startling, he stalks the stage in six-inch, knee-high patent leather lace-up boots. He gave real emotional expressiveness to Arnalta, trying to provide good worldly advice to Poppea as a stalwart friend – the act II lullaby was beautifully phrased.  

David Greco as Seneca displayed his captivating, charismatic baritone (in this production he wears a white suit with a Hawaiian shirt and boat shoes) and acts discreetly as a drug dealer. In this production, the thoughtful philosopher turned advisor and guru becomes an amplification of the extension of the tediousness of the decaying glamour of Rome. His death is shocking and callous. (Murdered in the bath by Nero’s thugs – much like the Duke of Clarence in Richard III, not how it’s normally done in a relatively peaceful departure as is the noble Roman way.)

Handsome Owen Willets’ Ottone was in by turns lovesick, groveling, noble, powerful and forced to unwillingly follow the empress Ottavia’s orders. He sang with a splendidly rich warm tone.

Natalie Christie Peluso was tremendous both as the glamorous scheming vengeful Empress Ottavia and the sincere, loving Drusilla (she also portrayed Virtù in the opera’s prologue). As Ottavia she is vindictive, exposed and somewhat repellent at times in her rage. As Drusilla captivated by Ottone she was charming and noble, strong in the last duet with the unfortunate Ottone. Controlling everything as a fiery, robust yet diminutive and turbulent Amore, Roberta Diamond’s lucid, flowing soprano was tremendous.

Coronation of Poppea concludes with the famous duet 'Pur ti miro' for Poppea and Nero. Musically superb with a very thought provoking staging.

3½ stars out of 5

Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea

Pinchgut Opera

Helen Sherman | Poppea        
Jake Arditti | Nero Natalie 
Christie Peluso | Ottavia, Drusilla 
Roberta Diamond | Amore 
Owen Willetts | Ottone   
Kanen Breen | Arnalta 
Adam Player | Soldato I, Famigliari II 
Jacob Lawrence | Soldato II, Liberto, Console 
David Greco | Seneca 
Jeremy Kleeman | Famigliari III,  Tribuno 
Troy Honeysett |  Actor

Govinda Röser |  Actor          
Orchestra of the Antipodes
Erin Helyard Conductor 
Mark Gaal Director 
Charles Davis Designer 
Ross Graham Lighting Designer 
Troy Honeysett Assistant Director

City Recital Hall 

30 November - 6 December 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.