Despite being nearly 400 years old, The Coronation of Poppea is a work that is frequently noted for its striking modernity. Written as the young genre of opera was learning to find its feet, the work is immensely confident in its exploration of the black humour of human emotion and motivation.
This was brought to the fore by the witty and idiomatic translation of Busenello’s libretto. In his retelling of a story from Tacitus, Monteverdi’s librettist presents a story whose characters are rich in baroque ambiguity of motivation. The opera focuses on the affair of the emperor Nerone with the manipulative Poppea. As Nerone descends into paranoid psychosis, his wife Ottavia watches on distraught. She, however, is far from being blameless, attempting to convince Poppea’s former lover to murder her. The only symbol of classical virtue in the piece – the stoic, Seneca – is forced to commit suicide by the tyrannous Nerone.
It is Monteverdi’s music that brings this time in which bad men could flourish to life. In his music, Monteverdi exploits the full potential of the operatic form to explore the depths of the human psyche. The score is no mean feat to tackle and it therefore comes as nothing short of a triumph that an amateur, student-led company could have performed it with such aplomb.
The orchestra was largely professional. In part, this was due to the exotic rareness of the instrumentation – a player of the theorbo (an enormous lute that could have come straight from the set of Wolf Hall) had to travel from Wales for the performance. However, it was also due, as producer Katie Jeffries-Harris explained to me, to the need for the singers to be provided with a rock-solid base from which they could show off their musical talents. The orchestra excelled in this function magnificently. Tomos Watkins provided a steady harpsichord continuo, whilst the orchestra played immaculately without ever drowning the singers.
For these performances to have been buried under the orchestra would have been a tragedy. The overall standard was truly astonishing for an amateur company. Having come to the opera without even having read a synopsis, I was afraid that I would be lost; however, such was the clarity of the diction that I was able to follow every twist and turn perfectly.
Of particular note was the pathos in the voice of Lila Chrisp as Ottavia, whose lamentations at her fall from grace were truly heart-rending. Sonia Jacobson‘s Nerone possessed the imperiousness of a Roman emperor. It was, moreover, a treat to have seen not one but three counter-tenors (Francis Gush, Henry Kimber, James Potter) on such fine voice. Lucy Cox – appearing as multiple characters – sang beautifully. However, to single people out for praise is particularly difficult given the impressive standard of the cast. This strong ensemble left little to be desired.
It was a real treat to have seen an opera mounted in Oxford to such a high standard. The musical quality left one wanting little in terms of staging. Somerville College chapel played host to a very pleasant night at the opera; hopefully, this will provide a beacon of inspiration for further students wishing to mount operatic performances of their own.