Thursday, July 20, 2017

An edgy, intelligent and dramatically well-paced Poppea from Lyric Opera of Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun 17th July and in print 18th July 2017.

Back in the mid 17th century, Claudio Monteverdi was writing musical dramas before the word opera was coined to describe them. As opera in its infancy, his final such work, The Coronation of Poppea, is a masterpiece of mature dramatic clout that, in this 450th anniversary of his birth, surges to life in Lyric Opera of Melbourne’s outstanding new production.

Rebecca Rashleigh as Poppea and Nicholas Jones as Nero
Director Tyran Parke’s fine credentials are put to the test in an opera directorial debut that delivers an edgy, intelligent and dramatically well-paced entertaining treasure.

Monteverdi’s sensational account of the Roman emperor Nero’s (Nicholas Jones) blinkered pursuit of love for his mistress Poppea (Rebecca Rashleigh), her ambitions of power and the Empress Ottavia (Caroline Vercoe) gravely aware of the vulnerability of her position, is the basis on which moral compasses on all fronts break down. Threaded through, the goddesses of Fortune, Virtue and Love, are having a cat fight of their own for supremacy.

In the spirit of a Venetian Carnivale, or simply the everyday, Virtue (Hew Wagner) and Fortune (Robert Macfarlane) open proceedings outrageously as two drunken and dishevelled drag queens with Love (Alison Lemoh) spying from above. After this eyebrow-raising start — spicy fodder for the salaciousness and depravity that ensues — superbly depicted character interactions accompanied by quality singing culminate in Nero and Poppea singing a heavenly love duet that comes with its own sense of irony.

Planted firmly on the poetry of the text, Parke’s inventiveness is replicated by design (Dann Barber, Rob Sowinski and Bryn Cullen) that brims with sophistication. Time appears fluid but a beautifully tailored 1950s-like aesthetic peers comfortably through more classical details, centred around a versatile imposing pedimented armoire that conceals Nero and Poppea’s bed. The effect is fresh and modern with the sense that Ancient Rome is just as palpably present.

Caroline Vercoe as Ottavia
Coalescing deliciously with the drama, Monteverdi’s music (though it’s not entirely his) trickles and wafts divinely with sympathetic support for the performers from a small ensemble conducted from keyboard by Pat Miller.

As cute as a kitten and calculating with her feline charm and intrigue, Rashleigh is radiant as the plotting Poppea. Exuding suaveness and authority, Jones’ dynamic-voiced Nero is a superb compliment to Poppea. Vocally rich and darkly hued, Vercoe’s touching expressivity is a standout as the rejected Ottavia. Nicholas Tolputt meets countertenor demands with polish as the murderously manipulated Ottone, Elizabeth Stannard-Cohen makes a shining beacon of Drusilla, Damian Whiteley’s philosophising and suicide-forced Seneca comes with stamina and conviction and Bernard Leon shows his vocal chops as a sinisterly lurking Mercury.

Including an aria sung as popcorn is stuffed down the gullet, Parke’s part-prankish approach is an enlivening accompaniment to the percolating drama, one he gives truthfulness to that celebrates the opera’s near 400-year existence and a highly recommended one to head off to.

The Coronation of Poppea
Lyric Opera of Melbourne
Chapel off Chapel
Until 22nd July


Production Photos: Sarah Walker