One of the earliest operas, this is a challenging baroque piece recounting how Poppea, mistress of the Roman Emporer Nero(ne), achieves her ambition to be crowned empress: a strange tale in which moral turpitude triumphs.
In this, Brusenello’s liberetto, all the major characters are flawed as we watch the lusty Nerone frolic with his mistress, exile his wife, condemn his adviser to death, drown courtiers for fun and crown his paramour – all in the space of 24 hours.
But the original audience would have been well aware that all had their comeuppances – Nero kicked a pregnant Poppea to death just months later and killed himself soon after while Ottavia, Lucano and Ottone also met untimely deaths.
Opening with Fortune, Virtue and Amore bickering among themselves in the audience and pit as to who is the most powerful, director Robert Carsen reminds us that this is an opera within an opera as Amore plots and schemes to drive the characters to extremes by Love.
With predominately monochrome costuming (yawn) offset by Michael Levine’s blood red curtaining (which double as sumptuous cloaks) and bed sheets, the contrast is effective and the set exceptionally simple but effective. However given that singers were selected for their voices rather than their gender, a tad more colour may have assisted the uninitiated as I confused Nerone with the valet on a couple of occasions. Even a red tie or waistcoat would have done.
With a very able cast, Glyndebourne debutant soprano Christiane Karg is suitably sexy as lusty Poppea but took a little while to warm up in a lightweight first half while mezzo-soprano Louise Poole was superb from the outset as shunned wife Ottavia, particularly in her early aria ‘Disprezzata Regina’.
I struggled at times with mezzo-soprano Lucia Cirillo as Nerone as she seemed too feminine but her voice paid dividends in the final haunting duet with Poppea.
With Jonathan Cohen energetically conducting from the keyboard collection, the artistic conventions and vocal textures peculiar to 17th century baroque are kept in tight control.
Not for the faint-hearted