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Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronozione di Poppea
09 Aug 2009

Monteverdi: L’incoronozione di Poppea

This excellent production of Monteverdi’s final (premiered in 1643) and most problematic opera features first-rate singing and a very effective (and restrained) staging.

Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronozione di Poppea

Poppea: Danielle de Niese; Nerone: Alice Coote; Ottone: Iestyn Davies; Arnalta: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke; Ottavia: Tamara Mumford; Seneca: Paolo Battaglia; Amore: Amy Freston. Emmanuelle Haïm conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Glyndebourne Chorus. Stage Director: Robert Carsen. Libretto by Giovanni Busenello. DVD of live performance at Glyndebourne Festival, June 2008

Decca 074 3339 [DVD]

$21.97  Click to buy

Early baroque opera is always a challenge for the producing company since the musical language, artistic conventions, and vocal tessituras are so far removed from modern day practices. L’incoronazione di Poppea, ups the ante by portraying the Emperor Nero, one of history’s most barbaric tyrants, in a somewhat positive light, which, most likely was meant to be understood by its original audience as symbolic of the northern Italian disdain for Roman corruption and decadence.

Busenello’s libretto is largely based on Seutonius’ The Twelve Caesars and begins with a debate among Fortune, Virtue, and Amore as to who is the most powerful. Director Robert Carsen stages this Prologue as though Virtue and Fortune are actually members of the Glyndebourne Festival audience and even has the action begin in the pit and in English before quickly transitioning to the stage and the Italian. This works most effectively because it reinforces the idea that the action to take place hence is an opera-within-an-opera.

The action of the opera basically follows the parameters of the Aristotelian unities. Within approximately 24 hours Nero will exile his wife Ottavia, make Poppea his new empress, condemn his disapproving tutor Seneca to death by suicide, all the while showing kingly magnanimity to Ottone (Poppea’s former lover and would-be assassin [at the behest of Ottavia]) and Drusilla, the once and future lover of Ottone. By opera’s end, Amore has thoroughly triumphed over Virtue and Fortune. This triumph, however, is short-lived, as the historical record shows that within a year after the end of the action in the opera Nero kicked to death the then-pregnant Poppea.

The staging of the opera in large part mitigates the dramatic difficulties that the work presents. Taking advantage of the limited space of the Glyndebourne stage, the sets are minimal and easily flow from one scene to the next. Since a great deal of the action takes place in the boudoir, bed sheets become gowns. Although the staging abandons authentic Roman-era verisimilitude, the visual effect is one of an otherworldly milieu, not a vulgar deconstruction of the baroque. Indeed, the creative minds behind this staging are to be commended for not succumbing to the fashionable kitsch of Regieoper. Their emendations and interpolations are few and help to enhance the musical and dramatic effects of the opera.

Particularly satisfying was the choice not to sacrifice musical integrity for visual effect. Rather than transpose the opera to accommodate modern tessituras, singers were selected for the appropriateness of their voice, rather than gender. As such, this staging employs counter-tenors (Ottone), females performing male roles (Nerone), and males performing female roles (Arnalta). This is done, however, not for the sake of gratuitous gender bending, but to allow for the experience of authentic baroque vocal ranges.

Soprano Danielle de Niese’s performance in the title role is musically, dramatically and visually spot on. As a musical actress, de Niese is believable even in love scenes with Alice Coote’s Nerone. Also impressive are counter-tenor Iestyn Davies in the role of Ottone and bass Paolo Battaglia as Seneca. Although it is a secondary and somewhat thankless role, Tamara Mumford performed admirably as Ottavia, particularly in her Act I rage aria “Disprezzata regina.”

Conductor Emmanuelle Haïm directed from the keyboard and displayed a spontaneity and musicality that is often lacking in baroque opera. Her approach is authentic performance for the sake of musicality rather than authenticity for authenticity’s sake. In her hands, the performance was alive and was fully in synch with the drama and rhetoric of the libretto, as one would expect in a performance of a work by the creator of the secunda prattica.

This DVD has several additional features that are quite good, including a brief history of the Glyndebourne Festival, interviews with the creative team, and retrospectives of the 1962 and 1984 Glyndebourne stagings of Poppea. All in all, this is an excellent DVD that will be satisfying to both devotees of Monteverdi and baroque opera as well as those who are experiencing the genre for the first time.

William E. Grim

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