“The music.” Producer Katie Jeffries-Harris’ immediate answer to the question of why choose The Coronation of Poppea may be short and sweet, but her enthusiasm is almost tangible. Choosing to run an abridged concert performance of Monteverdi’s opera, rather than the full staged alternative, means that Poppea will be focused almost entirely on its musical merit, something Incoronazione, the production company, are eager to stress.
A troupe of twelve singers and seven instrumentalists make up the performance, including, as Jeffries-Harris excitedly tells, a Renaissance band using a harpsichord and theorbo – a strikingly unique addition to the performance that reflects Poppea’s importance as an example of the earliest opera. Auditions for the twelve vocal parts were opened to the university as a whole, allowing Incoronazione to utilise the enormous range of talent in Oxford; while university level opera is almost always run on closed auditions, Jeffries-Harris emphasises the team’s determination to open up the platform to a wider talent pool, a choice that seems to have paid off well. “We couldn’t have hoped for a better cast!” she beams.
Opening the accessibility of opera again is at the heart of the decision to perform the English translation of Poppea. The plot is twistingly complex and deeply psychological; the illicit affair between the ambitious Poppea (Rose Rands) and Emperor Nerone (Sonia Jacobson) against the vengeful machinations of Ottavia (Lila Chrisp). The performers of Poppea play numerous roles of both genders – something both they and musical director and harpsichordist Twm Watkins have been challenged to show without the aid of costume or set, even with the benefit of cutting out the more superfluous elements of the story. So why a concert? “Staging opera in Oxford is difficult,” admits Jeffries-Harris, detailing the acoustic problems of larger theatres and the time and location benefits of smaller college venues – Somerville College chapel, in this case, the thought of which brings a smile to the producer. “It’s a really nice singing space,” she sighs happily.
The Coronation of Poppea looks set to be a beautifully crafted and easily accessible performance to round off Somerville Arts Week. A concert of around two hours, it should bring a sophisticated and enjoyable end to this Hilary term.
The Coronation of Poppea is being performed in Somerville College Chapel on Saturday of 7th Week for one night only.