> Claudio Monteverdi - The Coronation of Poppea [RF]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
L’Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), opera
Carolyn Watkinson (sop) (Nerone), Judith Nelson (sop) (Drusilla), Peter Ratinckx (c-ten) (Amore), Henri Ledroit (alto c-ten) (Ottone), Carmen Balthorp (sop) (Poppea), Andrea Bierbaum (mezz) (Ottavia), Ulrik Cold (bass) (Seneca)
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
Rec. Live performance, Theatre La Fenice, Venice, Italy, September 1980 ADD
WARNER FONIT: MUSIC ANTIQUA 8573 84065-2 [CD1 76.13 CD2 47.20 CD 3 39.06]

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At age 16, Monteverdi, already a fine organist and viol player, entered the service of the Duke of Mantua as an instrumental player and singer of madrigals. On military expeditions with the Duke in 1595 and 1599 he heard, and was greatly influenced by, Florentine operas and his first opera was produced in 1607. It is notable for the fact that the action was for a full (by the standards of the time) orchestra. After the death of his patron, Monteverdi became Master of Music of the Venetian Republic in 1613. For St Marks he composed a stream of sacred works by which his fame spread throughout Europe.

Several of Monteverdi’s early operas were irretrievably lost in the sack of Mantua by the Austrians in 1630. However, his interest in the genre was revived by the opening of Venice’s first opera house, the San Cassiano in 1637. In the last six years of his life he composed a series of works for the stage of which two survive, including Poppea which was presented at the Venice Carnival in the autumn of 1642. The operas of Monteverdi are the earliest works the opera-goer may expect to see regularly staged.

Monteverdi set Poppea, his first on a historical rather than biblical source, to a text by Busenello (after Tacitus circa AD117). It comprises a Prologue and 3 Acts, and followed the traditions of the day in that several male parts are sung at female pitch (by castrati), a tradition that persisted in Italy for opera seria well into the 19th Century.

The story, set in Rome around AD55, involves love triangles and the triumph of love over morality; it might be summarised as ‘making sin profitable’. It tells of how the Emperor Nero (Nerone, sop) has fallen in love with the young Poppea (sop) who fancies being Empress, a position held by Ottavia (mezz), the wife of Nero. Nero wants to divorce Ottavia and when he tells his old teacher, Seneca (bass), this, he is admonished by him. Poppea, fearing Seneca’s influence, persuades Nero to condemn him to death. Meanwhile Ottavia persuades Ottone (alto c-t) to murder Poppea who, before being enamoured of Nero was his mistress, but he is caught and only saved by Drusilla (sop) his lover who in turn confesses her own intention to murder Poppea; she also reveals Ottavia’s plot. The two lovers are banished, together, and Ottavia is sent into life-long exile. Nero and Poppea are married and she is crowned before the senate and populace. Love reigns supreme over morality.

In the 20th Century, the seminal significance of Poppea in the history of opera was realised and in the 1960s productions, such as at Glyndebourne in 1962, were of fully orchestrated versions with modern instruments and colourful continuo realisation. Later these gave way to a simpler and more faithful style in which the solo vocal line, the main expressive agent, received the chief emphasis. Recordings of both approaches are available. For this recording of a live performance given at La Fenice in Venice (now burnt down), Alan Curtis has gone further and attempted a realisation as might have been heard in 1642. This is easier said than done as no definitive score exists. By researching what sources and texts do exist, deleting what he believes are additions by Cavalli and amending other errors from sources that do exist, Curtis claims to have got nearer the original and that justifies this recording. He does admit this revision is only one step in the direction of greater authenticity.

A live recording of a stage performance always poses problems of balance and the first thing to say here is that they are not mastered. This harpsichord and small orchestra are set well forward, in a clear acoustic, while the voices are often too far back, lacking presence and consistency of level. This is a pity as there are distinguished performances to be heard, particularly by Carolyn Watkinson (Nerone), Judith Nelson (Drusilla) and Carmen Balthorp (Poppea) who are expressive and well differentiated in tone; all able to hold the vocal line while giving vent to their emotions with appropriate ornaments. The Ottavia of Andrea Bierbaum is well realised with good tone and line whilst the Seneca is a little wavery rather than solid; this latter could be deemed appropriate in an old man facing death by his own hand. The alto c-tenor of Henri Ledroit (Ottone) is a little breathy but he holds a good line which cannot be said of the counter-tenor singing the fortunately small part of Amore. The pacing of the performance seems natural and wholly appropriate. There are a few, not very disturbing, stage noises.

The 3 discs are neatly divided— Prologue + Act 1; Act 2; Act 3. The accompanying booklet containing a libretto (no translation), track listing, synopsis and a rather verbose essay. The vocal registers are not given: those given are mine.

This is an issue for those with a special and determined interest in this field. Ordinary opera-goers may wish to investigate studio recordings of modern orchestral or other authentic realisations; 3 discs at even mid-price could be an expensive mistake.

Robert J Farr

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