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Review: L’incoronazione di Poppea by New Opera Singapore

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New Opera Singapore has always been known for their unique, accessible choices of opera, and since their inception, have brought in a welcome breath of fresh air into the local opera scene with each production. Their latest one, L’incoronazione di Poppea is no different, and impresses with strong technical abilities coupled with slick production value.

Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (or, The Coronation of Poppea) is an opera partially based on historical truth. Inspired by the life of Roman emperor Nero, L’incoronazione follows the story of how his mistress Poppea rises to power and is eventually crowned empress. In a unique departure from most operas, the morality in L’incoronazione is muddled, where the scheming Poppea and corrupt Nero are rewarded for their immorality, while the moral characters in the opera are punished for their ‘good’ intentions.

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L’incoronazione already left a good impression on us from the very beginning: Mohamad Haziq Bin Surajan’s set and props design was impressive, firmly keeping the setting in 60AD Rome while embellishing it with modern touches. Along with the live orchestra that included classical instruments such as a chamber organ (Song Ziliang) and a harpsichord (Shane Thio), the entire atmosphere was filled with a robust sound and was well-paced, fully embracing and bringing out the opera’s themes. The live orchestra was as much a star as any of the actors onstage, thanks to music director Chan Wei Shing, all these elements came together to bring out artistic and stage director Jeong Ae Ree’s artistic vision. With productions which are always high concept and daring, she’s constantly pushing opera beyond its limits.

Besides the technical aspects though, L’incoronazione itself was also a delight from start t finish. Beginning with a somewhat light-hearted start with Fortune (Rachel Ong Ying Li), Virtue (Wang Tong) and Amore (Christina The) bickering over which god had the most sway over human lives. Even under their thick, theatrical makeup and gorgeous wigs (courtesy of Zennie Casanndra Han Cuo Ying), their beautiful voices still took centrestage and filled the entire Victoria theatre, setting the tone for the rest of New Opera’s production tonight.

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One of the biggest but short-lived highlights of the night was bass Yun Seung Woo as famed philosopher Seneca. Yun showed off his impressive vocal control, able to deliver a range of bass notes with gusto. Although doomed from the very beginning, Seneca certainly left on a high note filled with drama, ending his life dramatically with the help of Alberta Wileo’s lighting design, as a silk screen dropped down from the ceiling to cast Seneca as a silhouette, amplifying his act of stabbing himself, the entire screen filled with red lighting – a scene we certainly wouldn’t be forgetting anytime soon.

But of course, only an emperor can overshadow nearly everyone and steal the show. Leslie Tay played the role of despotic emperor Nerone perfectly. Although originally written as a soprano role, Leslie Tay, as a tenor, still managed to impress us with his incredible range, easily adjusting to his songs and always clear in his diction. In an impressive duet with Seneca towards the end of the first act, Leslie and Seung Woo’s tenor and soprano voices complemented each other perfectly, and really brought out the contrast in their characters, before Tay revelled in his role’s cruelty in a duet with Lucano (Martins Smaukstelis), gleefully celebrating the demise of Seneca later on.

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As for the female performers, mezzo soprano Eun-Jeong Koo as Poppea’s mysterious confidante played her almost omniscient role well, keenly aware of the situation at all times and encapsulating her role as guardian perfectly. One felt the pure happiness in her voice as she celebrated Poppea’s rag to riches story during her coronation at the end of the play, in an impressive solo song. Poppea herself, played by soprano Victoria Songwei Li, appeared in multiple scenes, and had excellent vocal control in her songs. Her demeanour perfectly suited Poppea, always remaining a source of attention in every scene, easing into the rigours of her character and executing hr songs well. Victoria also possessed very strong chemistry with Leslie Tay’s Nerone, and this showed in their various duets throughout the opera, almost telepathic in the way they interacted and displayed their affection for each other, making it easy to see why they were cast in the two biggest roles in the show.

Meanwhile, deposed Empress Ottavia (Grace Kuo), a soprano role, was one of the strongest vocalists and performers of the females. Her songs brought out the mood in each scene, and her character underwent a rollercoaster of emotions, from the extreme jealousy at Nerone’s love for Poppea, to her complete devastation by the time she is exiled and punished by Nerone. Removing her crown and jewelry and left bare, Ottavia is left a shadow of her former self, pitiful and sympathetic. Much like Ottavia, Yohan Cho as Poppea’s shunned lover Ottone was given a variety of emotions to work through over the course of the opera, and he brought it out well with good breath support, alongside his own slightly crazed lover Drusilla (Akiko Otao), who portrayed her character’s dedication and loyalty to Ottone well, and had strong phrasing control. With these skills, the entire cast was able to evoke the imagery of the songs and bring them to life onstage.

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If you thought opera in Singapore is still old, stuffy and uncomfortable, then do yourself a favour and catch a production by New Opera Singapore. If anything, an annual production like L’incoronazione should be one of the biggest operatic highlights of the year to look forward to – you’ll find yourself all smiles and re-invigorated with life, walking away with a newfound spring in your step when you leave the theatre after. Seeing the strong turnout tonight, one can only believe in the future of opera, which seems poised to continue to reach still greater heights.

Photo Credit: New Opera Singapore Facebook

Performance attended 28/7/17

L’incoronazione di Poppea plays at Victoria Theatre on 29th and 30th July. Tickets available here

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