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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567 - 1643)
L’incoronazione di Poppea - Opera in a prologue and three acts (1643)
Poppea - Danielle de Niese (soprano)
Nerone - Alice Coote (mezzo)
Ottone - Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
Arnalta - Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (tenor)
Ottavia - Tamara Mumford (soprano)
Nutrice - Dominique Visse (counter-tenor)
Seneca - Paolo Battaglia (bass)
Valletto - Lucia Cirillo (mezzo)
Drusilla - Marie Arnet (soprano)
Damigella - Claire Ormshaw (soprano)
Amore - Amy Freston (soprano)
With Trevor Scheunemann, Patrick Schramm, Sonya Yoncheva, Simona Mihai, Andrew Tortise and Peter Gijsbertsen
Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment/Emmanuelle Haïm
rec. Glyndebourne Festival, June 2008
Stage Director: Robert Carsen
Set Designer: Michael Levine
Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman
Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet
Menus: English
Picture Format: 16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Colour Mode: Colour
Region Code: 0
Region Format: NTSC
Sound: 1. LPCM Stereo 2. DTS 5.0 Surround (opera) 1. Dolby Stereo (bonus)
Subtitles (opera) English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese
Subtitles (bonus) English
These all-regions NTSC discs are designed for worldwide playback. In PAL regions (e.g. Europe, Australasia & Africa) ensure your DVD player and TV are PAL / NSTC compatible (“dual-standard”)
DECCA 074 3339 [193:00 + 41:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Catapult Rome to the Glyndebourne of today and deify the audience. Suspend disbelief because the Roman Empire still exists as does banishment and murder by the Emperor. Have two superstars for leads: add two vastly experienced travesti confidantes plus a strong youthful cast. Flowing curtains for scene-changes, modern costumes, strong direction. Add a conductor in control of a powerfully sympathetic orchestra. Those are the bare bones: but there is a great deal more to be said.

The Venetian audience, for whom this was written, would know their Roman history, whilst nowadays it is not so familiar. In addition, some gods become characters, and so the opera opens: with Amore telling Fortuna and Virtù that she rules the world as she will now demonstrate. Guarded by two soldiers, Nerone is spending the night with Ottone’s ‘wife’ Poppea. Nerone promises to repudiate his wife Ottavia and make Poppea empress. Poppea’s nurse, Arnalta, warns her against involvement with politics whilst Nutrice, the nurse confidante of Ottavia, suggests that Ottavia takes lovers. Both are ignored. Later Arnalta preens herself at the thought of becoming confidante to Poppea’s empress status. Nerone’s adviser Seneca warns him against Poppea and advises Ottavia to be constant. He is ignored too and when Poppea tells Nerone that people say that he does as Seneca suggests, Nerone orders Seneca to commit suicide - which he does by opening his veins in a hot bath. Ottavia and Ottone plot to kill Poppea. Ottone disguises himself as his ever faithful love Drusilla to gain access to Poppea’s garden. He fails. Nerone then repudiates Ottavia, banishes Ottone and Drusilla and crowns Poppea. Post-opera events include Nerone kicking her to death and having his poet Lucano executed and later committing suicide himself at the advanced age of 31.

Whilst the operatic history is fascinating with two authoritative musical sources which came into existence after Monteverdi’s death and the racing certainty that he did not write all of the music, it is this production which interests us and perhaps, passingly, what is omitted. Unedited, there is a danger that Ottone will take centre-stage with swathes of music. Haïm puts an end to that risk. Gone is Ottone’s introspective second act scene in which he condemns himself for thinking of injuring Poppea, only to be blackmailed into doing just that in the very next scene. Principles do not run high in this opera. There are also snips here and there to tauten his role. The gods are cut down to size and there are minor other omissions which speed the story. My only slight reservation is the omission of Arnalta’s instruction to admit only Drusilla or friends to where Poppea sleeps giving Drusilla access for ‘her’ attempt to kill Poppea. It is a small gripe because the flowing production gives characters admission which we might expect would otherwise be denied.

This is the coronation of Danielle de Niese at Glyndebourne. With the memory of her Cleopatra we would expect nothing less than a deceptively controlled, singing and dancing stage-animal who knows how to portray the vamp-ish, scheming sex kitten. With her strong vocal personality and sensuous sound she only needs gentle colouring to captivate. Add some remarkable facial acting, captured in close up courtesy of excellent camera work, and her ambition to become Empress is assured.

Alice Coote’s mostly psychotic Nerone is stunningly good. From prowling to purring, from snarling to snuggling, this is a benchmark performance. The few rational moments are portrayed with acting skills second to none. Take first what is always considered the clemency in allowing Ottone to live in banishment after the attempt on Poppea’s life. Coote, with ironic smile and reflective movement conveys this clemency as Ottone’s prize for giving the reason / excuse to be rid of Ottavia; or, second, the regret in the last scene at foreseeing Poppea’s fate - drawing away as Poppea insists on the cloak of the Empire. Brilliantly directed and effected. She sings excellently. This is a high lying tessitura for a mezzo but it troubles Coote not a jot. From angry declamation to melting love or lust Coote gives it forte or piano. The interaction with de Niese is faultless and their only true duet Pur ti miro is meltingly smooth.

The spiky red-haired Amore of Amy Freston, in red velvet suit, oversees all - particularly here where in Act 1 she is often on stage as listener or silent acting commentator. She leads the concept of the audience as gods producing an occasional stage audience. Without a stage audience for most of the time this concept does not seem to work very well. That said Freston despatches her vocal role with crisp clarity of sound and dances easily around the stage with pure joie de vivre at the mounting success of the demonstration of her powers.

Ottone is a miserable character, rejected, blackmailed and a failed murderer who nevertheless lives and takes his ever-devoted Drusilla into exile. Iestyn Davies plays him well. He is as focused as the music permits, a comfortably toned counter-tenor. If there is a suggestion of lack of power in the lower reaches this is compensated by strong dynamics elsewhere. Persistent in his attempts to persuade de Niese to return to him, their vocal contrast is strong as is the contrast with Coote when confronted after the failed murder attempt. For me the one glaring weakness of his role lies at the feet of the production team. A cropped haired man in thin clinging shift of a double strapped evening dress looks silly. Suspend disbelief yes, but there should be limits.

The Drusilla of Marie Arnet had lent him that dress which she had waved around her in Act 1 apparently having brought it back from the dry cleaners. She herself is wearing headscarf, cardigan, blouse and tweed skirt: a costume that seemed to me first to be more end-last century than this, but, second, one which would have made a better semblance of a disguise. Gripe not. This is a strong performance by Arnet who produces an almost ‘girl next door’ role, ever faithful, forgiving, loving and all too ready to accept the consequences of Ottone’s attempt on Poppea’s life. Clear diction, good phrasing, and dynamics to match with well judged underplayed acting.

And that cannot be said of Dominique Visse as Nutrice. He almost camps up the role to pantomime level. Excellent comic acting, a sharp timbre and a willingness to move counter-tenor to other tessituras leaves him free to play up his role. Ablinger-Sperracke as Arnalta takes the more serious line until preening herself on becoming the confidante of the empress in Act 3. Here is the caring nurse/confidante sung with surety and focus: a supportive, realistic, practical outlook and in contrast to her charge, de Niese.

Tamara Mumford, as Ottavia, is the young rejected Empress. She makes her lamentation very touching with a deep smooth creamy sound. There is real power when she tells Seneca that Nerone is attempting to repudiate her. She produces strong runs and creates a character for whom we have sympathy - a feat not always achieved.

The scene-setting to reflect the calm orderly villa of Seneca is effected by the absence of curtains and a sharply lit white background - set in his library and far from the disordered world of court. However, the problem is to create a modern noble counsellor. Whilst Battaglia has the voice, he is not helped by lank hair to shoulder and an undistinguished suit. His steady arioso is delivered with strong deep colouring. He appears to be more the academic than the trusted long-time adviser. The contrast, with Coote’s self-willed petulance about marrying Poppea that day, is powerful. The three-voice chorus that attempts to dissuade Seneca from suicide is an extremely well-delivered musical diversion: only one of two true choruses in the opera.

Seneca is not unchallenged. The Valletto of Lucia Cirillo scorns the academic writing with strong acting and clear voice - not a strong sound but it will develop. It was well balanced with Claire Ormshaw’s expressively flirtatious Damigella.

With Seneca dead, in modern parlance for a modern setting, Nero goes out on the booze. He returns with his drinking ‘chums’, sings affectingly with the Lucano of Andrew Tortise who lies in a bath - no doubt running on the thought of Seneca’s ‘death bed’. Alcohol having loosened even Nerone’s conduct, here he kisses Lucano and almost immediately with the horror of what he has done, drowns him aided by his drinking companions. The director, Robert Carsen, in the bonus material, self deprecatingly says that this drowning arose in rehearsal and had not been originally planned by him. It matters not. For me it is the logical depravity and merely anticipates Lucano’s later historical execution by Nerone. Incidentally, the bonus material is interesting, not self-justifying but with explanations and observations on production history.  

Andrew Tortise ‘trebles’ as Lucano, Soldier 1 and Tribune. Not the strongest voice but clear with little or no opportunity for vocal display. The same is true of the similarly ‘trebling Peter Gijsbertsen who has the same clear diction but with a brighter timbre. Patrick Schramm and Trevor Scheunemann, Mercurio and Littore respectively and both later doubling as Consoles, were ably supportive as were Sonya Yoncheva, a bright pushy Fortuna, and Simona Mihai, a more demure but later assertive Virtù.

Overall this is a musically very strong DVD. Haïm grabs it, urges, cajoles and leads the orchestra into a perceptive vibrant sound. She brings out the colouring and raw sensuality of the music - ever supportive, never dominant

As you would expect the two discs divide the material conveniently: Act 1 and the bonus material on the first disc leaving Acts 2 and 3 on the second, the same division as on the Opus Arte recording (OA0924D AND OA0925D) which I reviewed in 2005. Whilst that recording had some excellent parts I did not think that the whole was greater than their sum. In this Glyndebourne version I do think that the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. This is a strong production musically and theatrically.

Robert McKechnie 


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