It may date from opera's cradle days but don't be deterred: ETO's production cuts Monteverdi's sublime but lengthy score by a third and rattles through L'incoronazione di Poppea's intrigues with the all urgency of a modern political drama.
Emperor Nerone (Nero) and Poppea, his mistress, share a lust that leaves in its wake a trail of dead bodies and rejected lovers. It is a tale that can still shock, not least because the culpable couple emerge triumphant, so director James Conway's decision to set it in an approximation of Soviet Russia is smart. A corrupt totalitarian régime where dissent led to death or banishment (to Siberia, one assumes) provides a pretty close modern parallel to Monteverdi's version of Ancient Rome.
In theatre, though, an idea is only as good as its execution, and Conway's realisation of The Coronation of Poppea – first seen late last year as a Royal College of Music production – is not without its problems. Samal Blak's clunky, two-tier set was not well served (at this second Britten Theatre performance at least) by notably poor lighting that cast haphazard shadows and even, for a spell, projected a giant silhouette of the Old Street Band's theorbo across the stage. Such technical glitches should be corrected later in the tour.
As for the sporadic kitting-out of Poppea as Grayson Perry, complete with Alan Measles teddy bear, I'm puzzled. Not only is the artist's faux-baby-doll image re-created in toto from blond bob to pop socks, but it traduces soprano Paula Sides's natural appeal and grinds risibly against the music's passionate eroticism during bedroom scenes. Conway's message, one assumes, is that Nerone is so egregious that he's aroused by the little-girl look; yet nothing is made of it.
The crowning glory of The Coronation of Poppea is its closing scene, ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo' (I see you, I possess you), a tender duet for the two central delinquents. It is one of the most ravishing passages in all opera, and if the audience knows of the historic Poppea's eventual fate it becomes red with dramatic irony. Conway stages the moment with panache, seasoning it with visual vinegar without upsetting the passionate mood.
Paula Sides and Helen Sherman (Nerone) sang beautifully, whether together or apart, as did Hannah Pedley, a class act as Nerone's embittered wife, Ottavia, and Russell Harcourt as her companion Nutrice. Jake Arditti made a couple of imposing but all-too-brief appearances as Amor (the incarnation of love – Cupid, perhaps) and there were strong contributions too from Hannah Sandison, Stuart Haycock and, as much-needed light relief, John-Colyn Gyeantey as Arnalta, Poppea's fusspot nurse.
ETO's Musical Director Michael Rosewell did splendid work at the helm, as he invariably does. The band produced its brightest colours for him; and if the raw string sound occasionally recalled performances of The Beggar's Opera – well, Monteverdi's score can take it.