Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
L’Incoronazione di Poppea (“The Coronation of Poppea”) [151:31]
Ottone - Tom McDonnell (baritone)
Poppea - Janet Baker (mezzo)
Nero - Robert Ferguson (tenor)
Ottavia - Katherine Pring (mezzo)
Drusilla and Fortune - Barbara Walker (soprano)
Seneca - Clifford Grant (bass)
Arnalta - Anne Collins (mezzo)
Lucano - Emile Belcourt (tenor)
Valletto - John Brecknock (tenor)
Damigella - Iris Saunders (soprano)
Liberto - Norman Welsby (baritone)
Pallas Athene and Virtue - Shirley Chapman (soprano)
Love - Elizabeth Gale (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of Sadler’s Wells Opera/Raymond Leppard
rec. live, London Coliseum 27 November 1971
CHANDOS CHAN 3172(2) [79:05 + 72:26]

It was nearly fifty years ago - in 1962 - that the Glyndebourne Festival took the bold step of producing “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” in a new edition by Raymond Leppard. Leppard intended to make the work suitable for a modern opera house. I did not see it then, but heard the revival the next year when it came to the Proms. I had heard little of the composer’s music at that time, but it was immediately obvious from this performance that he was able to portray a rich array of characters with an almost Shakespearean breadth. I and many others owe much to Leppard for this revelation. Since then there have been many productions of the opera, and in recent years these have been much closer to the composer’s intentions in the performance of the music - although possibly further from them in terms of production. It therefore comes as a shock to encounter again this BBC broadcast of the 1971 production of the Leppard version with the unexpected casting of Dame Janet Baker as Poppea.

Leppard’s orchestra in this performance includes some thirty string players, and he has a continuo section of two harpsichords, a harp, two organs, a lute doubling chitarone, a guitar, two cellos and two double-basses. This is substantially more than he had used at Glyndebourne, although it is virtually identical with that used at the Proms performance in 1963. Predictably it makes a much lusher sound than we are used to today; perhaps less predictably the use of a comparatively large string section makes for a less rather than more colourful effect. Also its size makes the use of a conductor essential, so that there is less flexibility in their relationship with the voices. Despite all this once I had got over the initial shock I found that I adjusted to the results very quickly. I should stress that there is no question that Raymond Leppard and the others involved were in any way historically uninformed but that they saw it as a more important priority to remove any barriers they perceived to the understanding and enjoyment of audiences at that time.

More difficult to adjust to are the actual voices used. The cast consists for the most part of members of the Sadler’s Wells company at that time. None have the kind of voices we are likely to associate today with early music singers. I remember hearing Robert Ferguson as a very solid performer of parts like Turiddu and Rodolfo and Tom McDonnell as Figaro. Nowadays you are more likely to hear a soprano Nero and a counter-tenor Ottone, and to hear a much more stylish approach to the music. On the other hand you would be lucky to get the same dramatic impact that you find here. Indeed this applies to the cast as a whole who, with very rare exceptions, show a real understanding of their part in this intensely dramatic work. The inclusion of singers of the quality of John Brecknock as Valletto gives an idea of just how strong the cast is. If you can accept the use of voices of a type so different in character and style to anything that the composer might have expected there is much to enjoy here. The inclusion of a male chorus works well when they are singing as Seneca’s friends and pupils but much less well as soldiers in the final scene where the unison decorative passages are almost grotesque.

However I have not yet mentioned the chief reason for listening to this set - the performance of Dame Janet Baker as Poppea. Despite the eloquent defence of her casting by Nicholas Payne in his fascinating and admirable article in the booklet, I must admit to a lingering feeling that on this occasion casting against type has gone too far. Nonetheless the sheer beauty of her singing, and the sincerity with which she invests all of Poppea’s words casts a different light on the character. Maybe she is a schemer but as portrayed here there can be no doubt of her very real love for Nero. The late Denis Arnold referred to them at the end of the opera as a “happy, if loathsome, pair”, but as portrayed here any loathing we feel for them is much moderated by pleasure at their happiness.

This was a live performance, but there are few slips, few stage noises, and little intrusive applause. The obvious comparison is with the recording of extensive excerpts that was made by the Glyndebourne cast, but apart from the very considerable advantage of Hugues Cuénod as Lucan and Richard Lewis as Nero there is little extra merit to offset the enormous cuts. More significantly the present set is part of the Chandos Opera in English series, and is sung in a translation by Geoffrey Dunn. In principle I am wholly in favour of singing this opera in the vernacular, as it is crucial that the listener should understand exactly what the characters are saying. Indeed we can do that here as the standard of diction is high - probably much higher than one would get if the recording was remade today. The translation is however not always well fitted to the music thus reducing the advantage of the vernacular.

Clearly this is an historic document in terms of the development of the performance style in this work, but it is much more than that. It emphasizes its dramatic impact in a way that may be anachronistic but is nonetheless powerful and it is a valuable supplement to the many recordings now available of more historically informed performances.

John Sheppard

A powerful and valuable supplement to more historically informed recordings.