New Opera Singapore reboots work based on events in ancient Rome

REVIEW / CONCERT

MONTEVERDI'S L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA

New Opera Singapore

Victoria Theatre/Last Saturday


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 art form.

New Opera Singapore's production of it directed by Jeong was updated to a mythical present, with three acts condensed into two. Although it ran for more than 21/2 hours, it was nonetheless an absorbing show.

The story was based on events in ancient Rome during the 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.

Soprano Victoria Li (Poppea) makes 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.

South 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), Koo Eun Jeong (the conniving Arnalta) and Grace Kuo (the jealous Ottavia).

The entire cast of 15 was strikingly attired in white and wore whitened faces as well, cleverly masking ambivalent personal values. An illuminated white marble floor was 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.

The small orchestra was well- helmed by conductor Chan, who doubled on the cello in passages of basso continuo accompaniment.

From the comedic Prologue to the final duet of Poppea and Nerone, Pur Ti Miro (I Gaze At You), the production was one sensitive to detail and nuance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2017, with the headline 'A morality tale cloaked with symbolism'. Print Edition | Subscribe