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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
L’incoronazione di Poppea - Dramma in musica in a prologue and three acts
Poppea ... Cynthia Haymon (soprano)
Nerone ... Brigitte Balleys (mezzo)
Ottavia ... Ning Liang (mezzo)
Ottone ... Michael Chance (counter-tenor)
Seneca ... Harry van der Kamp (bass)
Drusilla ... Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)
Arnalta ... Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor)
Nutrice, Famigliare ... Dominique Visse (counter-tenor)
Valletto ... Claron McFadden (soprano)
Fortuna ... Elena Fink (soprano)
Amore, Damigella ... Sandrine Piau (soprano)
Virtù, Pallade ... Wilke Te Brummelstroete (mezzo)
With Nathan Berg, Mark Tucker, Lynton Atkinson and Romain Bischof
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec. Het Muziektheater Amsterdam, July 1994
DVD OPUS ARTE OA0924D (PAL format) or OA0925D (NTSC format) [2 DVDs: 219 minutes]

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If a successful production is one that is greater than the sum of its parts, then, sadly, this production does not succeed. There is much that is good and a little that is excellent. However for me there is no complete whole. It tries too hard to be ultra-modern at which, in part, it succeeds spectacularly, but then loses sight of some aspects of the story-line.

As you know, this opera was the first to be based on historical fact: involvement and interaction of nobles and commoners with intervention from the gods thrown in for good measure. It intersperses high drama with comic interludes. The problem with this production is that whilst the gods remain aloof, the class distinction, which is important at various points, becomes blurred.

Whilst easy on the eye and mostly secure of note, Cynthia Haymon’s Poppea is not a sensual Emperor-eating animal. Gentle smooth understatement with even a touch of the demure can be a schemer’s weapons but there is no evidence of scheming here. Curiously, and this appears a contradiction in terms - particularly when Brigitte Balleys’ Nerone is occasionally literally hands-on with Haymon - there is greater sensual electricity in the interplay between Haymon and the Ottone of Michael Chance. The final Haymon/Balleys climactic duet which closes the opera is sung outwardly whilst at right angles to each other until the last few lines when Balleys turns to face in the same direction as Haymon. Very odd.

This is not Balleys at her best. She does not always middle her notes and is inconsistent in the use of her, not to be underestimated, power at forte. Indeed my impression is that she is not all that comfortable either in this role or in the directions she has been given for it. Although with Haymon she uses all her acting skills, curiously it is only when she is with, and kisses, the effortless and enticing Lucano of Mark Turner, with the doubts that that reveals, that you know she is indeed Nerone: not least because of the superbly acted doubts about sexuality that that duet evokes.

Michael Chance is excellent. Pained and put-upon. Rejected and blackmailed. This is indeed the Ottone that Poppea plays with and rejects, Ottavia threatens and Drusilla loves. Vocally mellow with good dynamics and diction this is a seriously enjoyable vocal and acting performance.

Ning Liang’s scorned Empress is full of dramatic intensity. She produces a beautiful deep warm creamy tone that she then contrasts with a powerful and highly coloured almost abrasive sound. However, whilst keenly aware of her humiliation would she really have sought refuge in the arms of Seneca? I think not. Their hug, whilst Seneca sings his opening line, jars.

Drusilla is ‘the girl next door’, well sung and played by Heidi Grant Murphy. She is a splendid foil for Chance’s more complicated Ottone. She floats her doubts to him and portrays well the simplicity of uncomplicated love. Had Haymon’s Poppea been a more sensual creature the contrast between them would have been heightened.

Harry van der Kamp sings the role of Seneca: and that is it. This is van der Kamp in a costume - with no cheap pun intended - not Seneca the Stoic. He can produce some deeply resonant low notes but in the higher reaches of his range, his voice becomes very light. No doubt he was directed to be an almost static Seneca showing no real emotion. However I prefer to see a slightly pompous tutor/guardian/adviser who also is/becomes a resigned wise recipient of the order to kill himself.

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt has either a natural, and/or a well-honed, comic talent, combined with acting skills and no mean vocal ability. His Arnalta is a convincing nurse despite his amazingly ridiculous costumes: the last, if not all, looking more like a concept costume on a way-out haute-couture cat-walk. The inevitable problem is that when enjoying the prospect of his elevation to the nurse of the future Empress he already out-dresses her, so his costume belies his words.

Contrasted with that, is the Nutrice of Dominique Visse: a beggar-like cripple with stick whose distinctive sharp timbre and dynamics with similar splendid comic timing makes the most of a comparatively small role.

Sandrine Piau’s Damigella ‘partners’ Claron McFadden’s Valletto which produces some good vocal interplay. If McFadden’s words are not always clear, she extracts every gramme of playful comedy in her opening scene with Liang and van der Kamp. That said, van der Kamp’s hairless visage makes a nonsense of the subtitled line, “I will kindle a fire in your beard”. And would Seneca really have kissed (even chastely) a page?

Piau also plays/sings Amore, a role she relishes with ringing clarity of note and some delightful slow trills. Elena Fink’s Fortuna is not the best I have heard, there is too much vibrato whilst Brummelstroete’s Virtue smoothly, if not particularly beautifully, fills the theatre.

And of course there is a lot of theatre to fill. This also presents problems. When facing, or being away, from stage-front the sound sometimes reduces dramatically. Then, in some areas of the stage and with some soloists there is an echo chamber effect. The variability of sound is not helped by the musicians in the pit who from time to time forget that they are supporting the singers and not vice-versa, which observation applies far too often in the recitatives.

The two discs divide the opera neatly between Acts 1 and then Acts 2 with 3. The first disc commences with an illustrated synopsis, a cast gallery and also an introduction from van der Kamp and the stage director Pierre Audi. It is a pity that the opportunity was not taken to offer a commentary on Emi Wada’s costume designs that, with a few exceptions, range from the extra-ordinary to the incomprehensible.

Robert McKechnie



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