Sunday October 21, 2018


By Diana Simmonds
December 3 2017

CORONATION OF POPPEA, Pinchgut Opera at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, 2-5 December and broadcast 7pm, Sunday 3 December 2017 on ABC Classic FM. Photography by Brett Boardman, above - Jake Arditti and Helen Sherman; below - Kanen Breen; below again - Natalie Christie Peluso

Claudio Monteverdi (and librettist Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s) Coronation of Poppea was first performed in Venice in 1642, yet the sizzling amorality of its basic story and most character arcs are as modern as Weinstein, Trump...and the rest. Based loosely on the grim doings of Roman emperor Nero/Nerone (Jake Arditti), his unquenchable passion for Poppea (Helen Sherman) and her unrelenting ambition to become empress – despite the presence of an incumbent: Nerone’s wife Ottavia (Natalie Christie Peluso) – the title tells all.

Directed by Mark Gaal on a spare, monumental set that would have pleased Mussolini and was designed by Charles Davis, this Poppea’s Rome is viciously 21st century. The inventive opening scene is electrifying and disturbing, setting the tone of the production with conviction and intelligence. 

Kanen Breen’s Arnalta (serving woman to Ottavia and Poppea by turn) is flamboyantly in drag. He is a tall man and in towering stiletto-heeled thigh-high black patent boots, a tiny black mini skirt and frivolous pink fluffy jacket s/he is at once fabulously imposing and vulnerable, so when Nerone’s thugs set upon him, the outcome is dreadfully shocking. 

In the shadows, indifferent to the incident and invisible as only street people can be, the gods, Fortuna, Virtù, and Amore (Sherman, Peluso and Roberta Diamond) quarrel in glorious soprano and mezzo harmonies. They wrangle over their own qualities and also the probable outcome of their interventions in the lives of the mortals they are observing. Their interest does not extend to the brutalised Arnalta.


Things look up for the gods, drama-wise, when Ottone (Owen Willetts) returns to Rome to find his lover, Poppea, has taken up with the emperor. She gives Ottone the flick and he resolves to give her the flick knife, much to the distress of Drusilla who loves him (Peluso again, in a lush chestnut wig and broken heart). Meanwhile, Nerone’s adviser Seneca (David Greco) tells the emperor that divorcing Ottavia for his new floozy will not play well with the people. By now feeling well on the way to omnipotence, Nerone’s solution is to have Seneca murdered.

The drowning of the philosopher is diabolically depicted. A beautiful white bath is slow-marched in by two beefy henchmen and ritually filled from buckets in a graceful show to Monteverdi’s sublime music. The juxtaposition makes it beyond chilling to watch.

The vividness of the music is heightened by Erin Helyard’s empathic relationship with the wondrous Orchestra of the Antipodes as he leads from the harpsichord and chamber organ. In this production the visual spectacle mirrors the spirit of the musicians and singers. The combination of such thrilling voices as counter-tenor Arditti with mezzo Sherman is inspirational, but the costumes too are entwined with the gender-bending, expectation-confounding creativity of the staging. It’s epitomised by Nerone’s zhuzhed-up emperor streetwear and peroxide crop, to the funky rags of the street gods – Versace versus Vinnies and neither wins.

And that’s also the ultimate message of Coronation of Poppea: nobody wins, although the ruthless lovers do get the most rapturous music of the night in “Pur ti miro – pur ti godo...” – I gaze at you, I possess you. History relates their reign didn’t last long, but in performing the duet, Arditti and Sherman make it hang in the air and the memory long after the applause has abated.


The same can be said of the rest of the cast. Natalie Christie Peluso is tragic and vengeful as Ottavia, reminding us that women give birth to their oppression in their sons; and as Drusilla she brings sassy strength to an otherwise drippy victim. The supporting characters are equally strong with fine singers Owen Willetts and David Greco making plausible three dimensional figures of Ottone and Seneca.

From the sublime to the sublimer, then there’s Kanen Breen. He is the most extraordinary performer – a fearless and skilled actor whose voice and stage presence can make angels fall out of the sky, either laughing or crying. His ability and willingness to go where most mortals fear to tread lifts poor old Arnalta to rare heights. 

A triumph for Pinchgut Opera and a great celebration of Monteverdi’s 450th birthday. Catch it if you can.



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