MUSIC-lovers in the South West have a very special treat this spring, as Dorset resident Sir John Eliot Gardiner gives the UK premiere of his Monteverdi 450 trilogy in Bristol at the start of its international journey.
The first concert, in April, was of Il Ritorno D’Ulisse in Patria, and the final offering is L’Orfeo on 28th May. The centrepiece, performed on 8th May, was the seductive and astonishingly modern story of the despotic emperor Nero and his new love, the scheming Poppea.
This is music to take your breath away, performed in the 450th anniversary year of its composer’s birth by one of his greatest interpreters. Gardiner set up the Monteverdi Choir as a Cambridge undergraduate, to celebrate Claudio Monteverdi’s then rarely-heard works.
Nero, bored with his patrician wife Ottavia, takes up with Poppea, who is already promised to Ottone. Her ambitions and her oozing sexual allure entrap the emperor. She leaves her former lover heartbroken, vulnerable to Ottavia’s plots to rid herself of her rival.
It’s Nero who gets his way – not before he has ordered his oldest friend and advisor Seneca to kill himself and banished Ottavia and Ottone. Poppea ascends the throne accompanied by music that underlines her celestial immortality.
The Monteverdi 450 production, semi-staged and co-directed by Elsa Rooke, may be less starry than his previous tour and recording, but it not only brings some of the excellent choristers to the fore, but introduces audiences to Korean-American countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim in the imperial role. The beauty of his voice and the intensity of his performance bring a new dimension to this ambiguous, immoral and achingly beautiful work. His duet with Lucano (Zachary Wilder) and the finale with Hana Blazikova’s Poppea bring the listener to the edge of voyeurism.
In a company that includes Gianluca Buratto as Seneca, Carlo Vistoli as the thankless Ottone, Marianna Pizzolato as Ottavia and Lucile Richardot as Arnalta, the production continues its tour, ending in October in New York. The only other UK dates are at the Edinburgh Festival.
There are still a few tickets for Orfeo at the Colston Hall. Get one if you possibly can.