Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea has prompted critics to wring their hands over its lurid plot and power-hungry characters. It is a rare beast: an opera in which virtue is punished and greed is rewarded.

Drawn from episodes in Roman history described in the Annals of Tacitus among other sources, Poppea condenses seven years into a savage and sensual 24 hours. One eminent musicologist described the opera’s characters and actions as “famously problematic”, its messages “at best ambiguous and at worst perverted”. For another opera scholar, Poppea amounted to an “extraordinary glorification of lust and ambition”.

But for director David Berthold, who is rehearsing a new production of The Coronation of Poppea to be staged at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and performed by third-year students of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, it’s really a story of “humans being human.”

Eden Shifroni (Poppea) and Daniel Ott (Nero) in The Coronation of Poppea. Photo © Fiona Wolf/Sydney Conservatorium of Music

“It really is the first opera about actual human beings,” Berthold tells Limelight. “Up until this point, most operas...