Crimson signifies passion. It is also the colour of blood. The stage is swathed in red which creeps onto and over many of the characters as the drama of love, jealousy, power politics and death is played out. The god of love Amore is the manipulator of the human pawns in his contest with fellow deities Fortuna and Virtù. Bruno Ravello’s revival of Robert Carsen’s original 2008 production makes for a magnificent bit of stagecraft.
Jonathan Cohen conducts with an instrumental ensemble playing on baroque instruments that weaves its obbligato through the floridity of the vocal line. Words and notes both come over with crystal clarity – you scarcely need the surtitles to follow the plot, complex as this is. The performances are all excellent and the designs – Michael Levine for the set, Constance Hoffman for the costumes and Peter van Praet for the lighting – are essential for the concept to make the impact which it does.
We may be historically in imperial Rome with its pantheon of squabbling gods but visually we’re in the early 21st century. Helen-Jane Howells is a fine Amore, a trouser-suited youth sparking and prodding the action to enable Poppea (Christiane Karg) to ascend the throne in place of Louise Poole’s Ottavia. Caught up in the women’s rivalry is hapless Drusilla (Manuela Bisceglie). Their different characters – Drusilla blinded by her love for Poppea’s discarded suitor Ottone (Christopher Ainslie), Ottavia conscious that Nerone is emperor only by virtue of his marriage to her and Poppea herself, all amorous seduction underpinned by naked ambition – are well portrayed by all three.
Mezzo Lucia Cirillo gives us the Nero of casual violence in equal measure to the young man in thrall to his senses. When his rapturous duet with Lucano (Peter Gijsbertsen) ends in almost-ritual violence, this – like the ruthless discarding of Seneca (Paolp Battaglia) – is of a piece with the emperor’s character. Our minds reject the cruelty but our ears are seduced by Monteverdi’s magical score. 1642 is nearly four centuries away from 2010, let alone the 2,000 years that separate us from the Julio-Claudian dynasty. For three hours, there is no distance. Only musical and dramatic magic.