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Few of the characters in this Dutch performance belong to the sex one might expect. Cupid, Nero, and the page are women; the two nurses are men. Brigitte Balleys as Nero is white, Cynthia Haymon's Poppaea is black, which cheerfully makes up for any vocal confusion. They first emerge after a night of delicious dalliance to interminable regrets that they must now part [listen -- 'Signor, deh, non partire!' (Act 1), DVD1 chapter 7, 0:00-1:29]. There is already sufficient human wreckage as a result of their love to threaten future carnage. Otho, friend of Nero and married to Poppaea, need hardly be surprised that Nero has taken advantage of his absence to occupy his bed. More justifiably outraged is the empress Octavia (Ning Liang), now scorned by the ambitious upstart [listen -- 'Disprezzata regina' (Act 1), DVD1 chapter 9, 0:00-1:46].

Ning Liang (Octavia) and Harry van der Kamp (Seneca) in Act 1. DVD screenshot © 1994 NPS, 2005 Opus Arte
Ning Liang (Octavia) and Harry van der Kamp (Seneca) in Act 1. DVD screenshot © 1994 NPS, 2005 Opus Arte

The only decent character in the opera is the moralist and playwright Seneca, strongly sung by Harry van der Kamp. His sentiments were perhaps better than his plays, and it is with real regret we learn from the goddess Pallas Athene that he will eventually have to commit suicide in the bath (mercifully off). Here, before a stormy encounter with Nero, he propounds the perils of the imperial purple [listen -- 'Le porpore regali e imperatrici' (Act 1), DVD1 chapter 11, 0:00-1:26]. Monteverdi enjoys also the inanities of Venetian gossip among the lesser characters, setting the black page of Claron McFadden against a companionable lady-in-waiting [listen -- 'Sento un certo non so che' (Act 2), DVD2 chapter 4, 0:03-1:40].

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Copyright © 16 November 2005 Robert Anderson, London UK


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