The Academy of Ancient Music has adorned the London music scene, and more widely around the world, for more than 40 years. The recent death of its founder Christopher Hogwood reminded us, if necessary, of the huge influence that the AAM has had on the early music movement. And it was entirely appropriate that Christopher should have been paid tribute at last night's semi-staged performance of Monteverdi's Poppea.
The AAM put together a stellar cast, including Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role and Sarah Connolly as Nero. Antonacci was a very specific piece of casting, breaking many of the rules - but she could have been remarkable in the role. Alas she withdrew. Her replacement was a no less distinguished and revered artist, Lynne Dawson - and the result of course was also a very different Poppea from one's normal expectations, but as stylish and sophisticated as one would expect from such a fine artist.
Sarah Connolly gave an astonishing performance as Nero - marvellous singing and a remarkable assumption of the character of the appalling Nero. Iestyn Davies, undoubtedly the counter-tenor du jour by a mile, brought all his customary subtlety to his assumption of Ottone - another riveting performance from this splendid artist. Marina de Liso was a powerfully moving Ottavia, and Matthew Rose, the best young bass of the day, completed the main principal line up as Seneca - a fine array indeed.
There was true depth in the casting with striking contributions from Sophie Junker as Drusilla, really lovely, the excellent Daniela Lehner as Damigella, Andrew Tortise a very finely sung Arnalta, and Elmar Gilbertsson a mightily sensuous Lucano in both singing and acting. All other roles were strongly taken, including some sensible double casting, and I must especially mention Charmian Bedford, daughter of my old friends Steuart and Celia, as the excellent La Fortuna.
The other casualty of the evening was the original conductor Richard Egarr - but the AAM had the good fortune to have Robert Howarth in command of his little band of just ten players.
The "semi-staging" was devised by Alexander Oliver and Tim Nelson. And they dealt with the challenge of the Barbican with considerable aplomb. The audience loved it - it was however slightly ironic that the back page of the Barbican program last night was advertising performances at the Wanamaker Playhouse, site of the last performance I saw of a Venetian opera, Cavalli's L'Ormindo.