L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA
New Opera Singapore
Saturday (29 July 2017)
An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 31 July 2017 with the title "A morality tale cloaked with symbolism".
Thank goodness for New Opera Singapore. More specifically, thank goodness for the wife-and- husband team of Jeong Ae Ree and Chan Wei Shing, who have energised the production of opera in Singapore by reminding local audiences there is much more life beyond the spectacles of Verdi, Puccini and the odd Merry Widow or Fledermaus.
Claudio Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) was first performed in Venice in 1643, not long after the birth of the opera artform. New Opera Singapore's production directed by Jeong was updated to a mythical present, with three acts condensed into two. Although running over two-and-a-half hours, it was nonetheless an absorbing show.
The story was based on events in ancient Rome during the nefarious reign of Emperor Nero. In a morality tale of sorts, Nerone's concubine Poppea installs herself as empress through intrigue and guile by ruthlessly removing all opponents and obstacles. Also in an ironic twist, Love triumphs over Virtue and Fortune, while the bad guys win in the end.
Casting was a major strength, with soprano Victoria Li (Poppea) making a stunning debut in a major role, with a strong and clear voice to match her oozing sexuality. Opposite her, tenor Leslie Tay (Nerone) was outstanding for his formidable presence, in a role that surprisingly displayed mercy as well.
Korean countertenor Yohan Cho as Poppea's cast-aside lover Ottone impressed with his hangdog look, and there were excellent portrayals by Akiko Otao (the self-sacrificing Drusilla), Yun Seung Woo (the compromised Seneca), Eun-Jeong Koo (the conniving Arnalta) and Grace Kuo (the jealous Ottavia).
The entire cast of 15 was strikingly attired in white with faces whitened as well, a shade which cleverly masked ambivalent personal values. An illuminated white marble floor was angled at an incline to reflect morals and ethics not always being upstanding or upright.
Symbolism was strong, down to the blood red in Poppea's wig and the lighting design when the condemned Seneca opened his veins. The characters Love (Christina The), Fortune (Rachel Ong) and Virtue (Wang Tong), who jostle for the moral high ground in the Prologue, are portrayed as mental asylum inmates. There were also homoerotic undertones in the duets of Damigella (Evangeline Ng) with Valletto (The), and Nerone with Lucano (Martins Smaukstelis), coming across as both comic and unabashedly overt.
The small orchestra was well-helmed by conductor Chan Wei Shing who doubled on the cello in passages of basso continuo accompaniment. Also key to the enterprise were harpsichordist Shane Thio and organist Song Ziliang, who were rock steady throughout.
From the comedic Prologue to the final duet of Poppea and Nerone, Pur ti miro (I Gaze At You), this production was one sensitive to detail and nuance. At the final note of the twin villains' union, when Nerone turns his eye at the voluptuous Damigella for a split second, the audience immediately knows, “Here we go again!”