The Coronation of Poppea – review

Britten theatre, London
Stalinist Russia replaces ancient Rome in this assured retelling of Monteverdi's opera

English Touring Opera's autumn season celebrates Venetian Baroque opera, whose first great exponent was Claudio Monteverdi. His final stage work, The Coronation of Poppea, launches the event in Oliver Platt's surefooted revival of James Conway's production.

In Samal Blak's designs, Stalinist Russia provides the replacement visual backdrop to the ancient Roman setting – though Helen Sherman's remorselessly determined Nero looks nothing like the Soviet dictator. But the essence of a plot that adopts a wryly philosophical attitude to the sexual obsessions and power politics of the dark and cautionary original, exposing the feebleness of virtue and the all-conquering impact of sexual love on human behaviour, still rings true.

Individual performances are mostly strong. Paula Sides's baby-doll Poppea clearly enjoys manipulating Nero to her own ends, while, as his repudiated empress, Hannah Pedley finds a vocal grandeur that only serves to emphasise the self-destructiveness of Ottavia's increasing bitterness. As Poppea's rejected lover, Michal Czerniawski's frustrated Ottone maintains a mellifluous tone, even as his life falls apart around him. Drusilla – whose love for him Ottone ruthlessly exploits to further his reckless scheme for revenge – is sung with humane warmth by Hannah Sandison. The production shows them being shot after supposedly being released to live in exile. Less vocally consistent is Piotr Lempa, who struggles to present the world-weary fatalism of Seneca – here a Maxim Gorky lookalike.

Both the comic nurses – easily the most down-to-earth characters in the piece – are finely sung, Arnalta by John-Colyn Gyeantey and Ottavia's attendant by Russell Harcourt. Jake Arditti makes a hunky Soviet-style Cupid. In the pit, Michael Rosewell is in charge of the Old Street Band, bringing a keen sense of style to the score and maintaining a consistent sense of flow.

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George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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