Orchestre de l’Agora et Atelier lyrique | Poppea, Masterful and Triumphant

by Elena Mandolini

The Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal and the Orchestre de l’Agora joined forces on Saturday evening to present Claudio Monteverdi’s mysterious opera The Coronation of Poppea. The limited size of Salle Pierre-Mercure at UQAM’s Centre Pierre-Péladeau did not prevent the performers from delivering a grandiose performance. An effective staging and a high-calibre cast made for an unsettling and memorable evening.

Monteverdi’s opera is said to be full of mystery, since Monteverdi’s original version has disappeared, and the stagings are reconstructions made possible by musicological research. Despite this, the opera is considered a jewel of the Italian repertoire and continues to fascinate audiences even nearly 400 years after its premiere. The libretto recounts the adventures of Poppea, lover of Emperor Nero, who wishes to ascend to the throne. After repudiating his wife Octavia, Nero marries Poppea, making her empress of Rome. Behind this argument based in ancient Rome lie timeless dilemmas: the struggle between love and duty, and the internal contradictions that inhabit us all.

The emotional complexity of the libretto is effectively represented by Aria Umezawa’s staging. The sets, initially uncluttered and open, become increasingly loaded with various objects left on stage by the singers. This makes the opera’s final tableau one of its most visually overloaded, illustrating the decadence and desolation suggested by the work. The costumes, too, are thoughtful and evocative, even allowing for dress changes in a matter of moments, right on stage.

As for the performers, both on stage and in the orchestra pit, they are all of exceptional quality. If one was initially concerned about the acoustics (the Orchestre de l’Agora, conducted by Nicolas Ellis, playing on period instruments for the occasion), one is quickly reassured. Each instrument is clearly audible, and in no way rivals the voices. Everything is perfectly calibrated in this respect.

The vocal quality of the singers is complemented by convincing acting that brings to life a whole range of emotions. We tremble at Nero’s anger (Ilanna Starr), worry at Poppea’s ambition (Emma Fekete), are moved by Seneca’s (Matthew Li) death, and are torn by Ottone’s (Ian Sabourin) dilemmas. All interpret the most difficult and virtuosic passages with ease and agility. All performances are to be commended and warmly applauded.

The Coronation of Poppea saw several forces unite to deliver a most spectacular performance. We can only congratulate them and look forward to another such collaboration.

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