Saturday, December 2, 2017

A strong and committed cast but Pinchgut Opera's reimagined The Coronation of Poppea misses its potential.


Making opera contemporarily relevant is at the forefront of pretty much any opera company today wishing to promote and vivify the art form. More easily able than many, Claudio Monteverdi's final opera, The Coronation of Poppea - premiered some 375 years ago - remains acutely relevant today and survives as a potent example of drama that simmers, boils, confronts and intrigues in its story of lust for power, sexual obsessions and ruthless dominance. In Pinchgut Opera's new production directed by Mark Gaal, wonderfully sung and boldly conceived as it is, attempts to reimagine the story's ancient Rome setting in a modern day context don't, however, always pay off so convincingly.

Helen Sherman and Jake Arditti
Power struggles, manipulative tactics and corruption exist in all spheres and levels of society but Gaal's interpretation creates an unpalatable friction and raises question marks over Giovanni Busenello's libretto - sung in Italian and surtitled in an eloquent English translation at odds with what is seen on stage.

Monteverdi's work is a sensational account of the Roman emperor Nero’s (Jake Arditti) abuse of position and blind pursuit of love for his mistress Poppea (Helen Sherman). Poppea's ambitions of power aggravate the Empress Ottavia (Natalie Christie Peluso) who is gravely aware of the vulnerable position she is in and who counteracts with a scheme to have Poppea disposed of. Woven through, the goddesses of Fortune, Virtue and Love, vie for supremacy.

Here, a mighty hip and bleached-haired Nero takes on the aura of a teen pop star mixed up in a life of sex, drugs and violence. Surrounded by his hoodlum mates who roam the confines of a stark, often coldly lit, concreted world (sets by Charles Davis and lighting by Ross Graham), it seems a confused take on the work's adaptational potential.

As Nero, Jake Arditti exhibits much colour and lightning flashes of dynamism with his rich and lively countertenor. And there's much happening to excite him in the process. Soon after Nero makes his entrance with a hooker-like, dangerous-looking Poppea, he knocks down a man, who Poppea straddles, then crawls across him seductively to remove his belt from under Poppea's loins. Later, partying and cocaine-fixed after ordering the death of his philosophising adviser Seneca, Nero is pleasurably sucked off by one of his men during which I don't recall what the music was doing. Gaal certainly highlights Nero's salacious pleasures yet Nero doesn't cut the figure of authority as the Roman emperor in the text reads.

Natalie Christie Peluso
The luscious, full-bodied mezzo-soprano of Helen Sherman gives a striking, attractively hued and phrased voice to Poppea. What begins as a grungy windowless world oddly becomes a glitzy fashionable one by end with Poppea making a surprise transformation into what looked like a celebrity model for a pageant coronation. Sherman stepped into the limelight radiantly for the opera's final melting duet with Arditti - "Pur ti miro/Pur ti godo" - in their only tender and restrained encounter without groping each other and, while doing so, paired lusciously in voice. Nero had secured his beauty and Poppea her position, precarious as that would be.

Perhaps if the libretto was completely reworked to reflect the characters portrayed, a more easy coexistence of drama, setting and text would have resulted. In this setting, I was seeing one possibility taking a topical Weinstein-like approach concerning alleged abuse of power and women which life is never short of.

Thankfully, Arditti and Sherman are part of a strong and committed cast that provide the propulsion needed. Smouldering baritone David Greco's vocal heft makes a notably firm standout as Seneca with his inviting and authoritative performance and ornamental touches that waft in precisely placed curls. Excitingly animated tenor Kanen Breen - indisputably shaping up as one of Australia's hottest theatrical talents - struts with towering height, form and delectable knowingness and confidence as a transvestite Arnalta, Poppea's subordinate and confidante.

Natalie Christie Peluso is another solid link as she spectacularly delineates the two widely contrasting roles - the venomous and vengeful Ottavia and more reserved, alarmingly naive Drusilla - to which her dark and expressively charged soprano she employs for Ottavia is brightened and softened as she portrays Drusilla. Countertenor Owen Willetts comfortably conveyed the passions and turns of the swooning Ottone who is in love with Ottavia in leaps of rich and fleshy warmth.

Kanen Breen as Arnalta
In the twin smaller roles as Seneca's friend Famigliari III (likely a little more than a friend) and Tribuno, bass baritone Jeremy Kleeman's resonating and firm vocal presence are an ear-catching luxury, as is Roberta Diamond's delightfully sweet soprano that emanates from her fallen-on-hard-times Amore as she follows love's triumph when least it is deserved and highlighting how love doesn't always behave.

The Orchestra of the Antipodes didn't carry through with the force and conviction of their usual breathtakingly layered textures on opening night. A few misses didn't escape notice, including some late shaky trumpeting, but the several open orchestral passages were consistently realised in top form. Conducting from harpsichord, overall, Artistic Director Erin Helyard's mixed and effective tempi provided ongoing momentum, more so in the second part but I couldn't help but feel that the music often seemed overtaken by an indulgent interpretation that attempts to make the story's relevance feel real but, instead, strangled it in theatrical melange.


The Coronation of Poppea
Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Until 6th December.



Production photos: Brett Boardman

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