MONTEVERDI The Coronation of Poppea (Helyard)
Pinchgut Opera’s 2017 staged production has several singers doubling up in multiple roles, which is likely the same sort of accepted pragmatism that was part of working life in the first public opera theatres in mid-17th-century Venice. It seems apt that Helen Sherman’s wily Poppea is foreshadowed by the same singer in the prologue performing Fortuna’s robust criticism of Virtù, who is in turn sung imperiously by Natalie Christie Peluso in anticipation of her reappearance as Ottavia. It also paves the way for the triumph of Roberta Diamond’s impish Amore in both contexts. Jake Arditti’s singing veers between seductive and volatile (arguably appropriate for Nerone), whereas Owen Willetts conveys Ottone’s anguish and indecision. David Greco captures both Seneca’s obsequiousness with Ottavia and the dignity of his suicide, its pathos supported by editorial violins not unlike those in Monteverdi’s late Venetian concertato madrigals – an aesthetic connection between that genre and the response of the philosopher’s friends that is realised intelligently in this astute performance. Kanen Breen’s drag-act Arnalta is entertainingly over-the top, albeit not very distinct audibly from his turn as Ottavia’s Nutrice (and Arnalta’s lullaby over the sleeping Poppea might have afforded to be sung more sweetly).
Erin Helyard directs from the keyboard with a shrewd eye on shaping, sonorities and pacing. The Orchestra of the Antipodes field single strings; cello, viola da gamba, lirone and violone on the bottom line ensure that Peter Holman’s reconstructed ritornellos resonate with plenty of depth. An assorted continuo group of two keyboards, harp, archlute, theorbo and guitar is attuned to the events and personalities in the drama. Additional cornetts, recorders and trumpet are applied with relative discretion (all of them are played by the versatile Matthew Manchester, so only one additional colour at a time). The sporadic use of percussion is less persuasive.
There are a lot of cuts: five scenes are deleted entirely and several others are shortened. The repositioning of Arnalta’s ‘Oggi sara Poppea’ (Act 3 scene 6) after Ottavia’s ‘Addio Roma’ (scene 5) reduces the emotional isolation of the repudiated empress’s banishment. Nevertheless, this warts-and-all live recording illustrates the spirited irony and panache of this enigmatic masterpiece.