From left, Sarah Parkin as Poppea and Lucilla Graham as Nero, photo by Chris Parker
From left, Sarah Parkin as Poppea and Lucilla Graham as Nero, photo by Chris Parker

On Saturday last weekend, another brave and innovative production from Barefoot Opera, electrified a packed auditorium at St. Mary in the Castle.

Staging L’incoronazione di Poppea (‘The Coronation of Poppea’) for a contemporary audience is no mean feat. Having premiered in Venice in 1643, Monteverdi’s musical drama of the story of Poppea’s seduction of Emperor Nero is one of the earliest operas ever written (to offer some perspective, it predates the birth of Mozart by over a century). Although the subject matter is racy, encompassing themes of tyranny, death, lust and deceit, the music is courtly and restrained. It is more reflective of the manners of Baroque Italy than the in-your-face, galloping operas of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and staging it to a contemporary audience in the spacious auditorium of St. Mary in the Castle, would have no doubt presented itself as a challenge.

A challenge nonetheless overcome, and with gusto. The singing was vibrant, improving throughout the performance as the singers found their stride, making one wish the production would continue for more and just one night. Many would agree that the high points were the death of Seneca (Tobias Odenwald), the statesman and philosopher whom Nero forces to commit suicide, and the closing love duet, both sexy and tender, sung exquisitely by Lucilla Graham (Nero) and Sarah Parkin (Poppea). Michal Aloni as Ottavia, Nero’s spurned consort, and Hannah Jones playing the supporting role of Drusilla were also among those who stood out.

The acting was bold and gestural. Especially entertaining was Judith Charron’s Amor, whose role as the driving force of the opera (above Fortune and Virtue, over whom he declares his superiority in the opening scene, love being the thing that ultimately ‘conquers all’) was played with mischievous aplomb.

In addition to the fine singing, the production was engaging for its combination of physical theatre, an elaborate set and striking costumes. A walkway connected the back of the stalls with the stage so the singers could perform amidst the audience and enter the scene from multiple angles, making the event an immersive experience for audience members sitting in the stalls. Fluorescent white costumes were worn by all except Poppea, whose dress was lusty red, and Amor, a cupid in black (with white wings), making him invisible, presumably so he could artfully intervene in the relations between the opera’s characters.

Purists might say that Barefoot Opera’s version of L’incoronazione was more flamboyant than the original, and perhaps some of the subtlety of the music was lost; however, judging by the applause it received, there is no doubting that the show was an immense success and that we are lucky to have Barefoot Opera bring Monteverdi to Hastings.

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