Early Music Vancouver and Festival Vancouver

L'Incoronazione di Poppea
by Claudio Monteverdi
with revisions and additions by Pietro Francesco Cavalli, Francesco Sacrati, Ray Nurse et al.
libretto by Giovanni Francesco di Busenello
in Italian with English surtitles

Dates: 5, 7, 8 August, 2003
Venue: Chan Centre

Reviewer: Elizabeth Paterson


Music directors  Stephen Stubbs, Paul O'Dette Stage directors  Roger Hyams, Eleonora Fuser
Music coordinator
  Ray Nurse Costume and Set designer  Robin Linklater Lighting designer  Alan BrodieStage Manager  Sheila Munn

Poppea  Suzie Le Blanc Nerone  Laura Pudwell
Ottavia  Ellen Hargis Ottone: Matthew White
Seneca Harry van der Kamp Arnalta Marc Molomot

Poppea Two music directors, two stage directors, music groups from three continents plus many more artists, can they get it together and put on a show? The answer is a resounding Yes! Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea is terrific.

This opera is the 17th century’s take on a particularly lurid moment in Roman history. The Emperor Nero is in love with Poppea.  Naturally Poppea sees this as a chance for self-improvement, despite the dire warnings of her nurse. No one takes much notice of their spouses, Ottone, Poppea’s doting husband and Ottavia, Nerone’s neglected wife and insulted Empress.  These two however are prepared to take action.  Ottavia commands Ottone to murder Poppea and he cannot refuse.

The plot is presented inside a framing scenario: the goddesses Fortune and Virtue are arguing who is the stronger in the outcome of human affairs.  Amore joins them and promises to demonstrate that he conquers all.  This device distances the audience from the rather unpleasant characters on stage and in the end undercuts Amore’s “ deus ex machina” denouement: as Ottone prepares to strike his sleeping wife, Amore blasts him with a thunderbolt.

As today literature from pre-revolutionary France or pre-World War II cannot be divorced from the Revolution or the Holocaust, so the 17th century opera- goer had read Suetonius and knew that in the end Poppea would be murdered by Nero, Nero would be overthrown and murdered and Ottone would, briefly before being overthrown and murdered, be Emperor of Rome. It is against this background that Monteverdi and his poet Busenello discuss love and the conduct of life.  Many types of love are shown: adoring (Ottone for Poppea), unrequited and self-sacrificing (Drusilla for Ottone), straightforward lust (Damigella, a court lady), innocence, at least for a short while (Valetto), self-regarding (Seneca), sycophantic (Seneca’s friends).  The ‘good’ characters come to death or exile, and the immoral characters seem to triumph.





This production aims to reflect the atmosphere of a 17th century Venice production. Suzie Le Blanc as a charming, not-so-bright Poppea sang enchantingly and the brilliant Laura Pudwell as Nero was at the top of her form, completely at ease in the trouser role. In fact, there was hardly a weak character on stage and all the singing gripped one’s attention. Ornamentation and gesture were executed as ravishingly on stage as in the pit.

Ray Nurse, billed as music coordinator, but also now collaborator with Monteverdi, has written the music for the string sinfonias and ritornelli where the manuscript is lacking. 

Robin Linklater’s costumes are gorgeous to look at.  They suggest the Venetian theatre’s idea of Rome with warm pinks, rich gold, greens and blues and splashing bloody red cloaks on the soldiers.  The set was slightly less successful.  It looked beautiful, a balconied, colonnaded semi-circle, very Italianate, but the actors had to go off-stage to move between balcony and stage level.  The Chan is clearly not the easiest stage on which to build an opera set, but this was not quite the right solution.  Nor was Amore’s thunderbolt.  Whoever thought a searchlight directed into the audience’s eyes could be a modern equivalent should think again.  Alan Brodie’s lighting shone a slanting morning light across the stage in a moment to remember.

Overall, this production is an excellent introduction to Monteverdi, first-rate, musically, more than competent dramatically, luscious to look upon. The edge that Monteverdi and Busenello created could be sharpened a little, but I for one am not quibbling.

© 2003, Elizabeth Paterson