For what reason I’m not sure, L’Incoronazione
di Poppea has always taken back seat in my estimation among
the three surviving operas ascribed to Monteverdi; perhaps it’s
because there’s something distasteful about a work which
celebrates the triumph of a gold-digger and a lovelorn megalomaniac
over a dutiful wife and a stoic philosopher. I was accused by
my examiners at my degree viva many years ago of taking a moralistic
attitude to literature, so I guess I’m still doing that.
This recording, however, has certainly challenged my belief
that L’Orfeo and Il Ritorno d’Ulisse
take first and second place.
José M Irurzun posted an appreciative review and photograph
of this production on our Seen and Heard pages in 2010 - here
- so it’s hardly surprising that I enjoyed the DVDs so
much. Firstly, a clear decision was made to opt not for a conflation
of the Naples and Venice versions, which usually happens, but
for a new edition of the Venice original. That’s just
one advantage, to which I would add William Christie’s
sure direction, Philippe Jaroussky’s unique voice and
Danielle de Niese’s vivacious appearance and singing.
Not least, too, the director has been content largely to leave
well alone, with none of the disfiguring gimmicks which have
beset so many recent operatic productions.
Philippe Jaroussky not only sounds the part; he looks it, too
in two important respects. Not only is Nero a megalomaniac,
he’s also uxorious, caring naught for Rome in his besotted
love for Poppea. The huge fur cloak which he wears at the outset
perhaps helps him, but his facial expressions, aided and abetted
by the make-up team are mostly responsible. His very light,
soprano-like counter-tenor is a bit of an acquired taste, but
it’s one that I acquired some time ago when reviewing
his recital recordings and it’s his Nero that I shall
remember now, rather than Elisabeth Söderström on
the Harnoncourt CD set which I own (now Warner Classics 2564692611,
3 CDs.) In fact, I shall probably choose the Christie DVD as
my listening choice in future, even in audio only, rather than
Danielle de Niese brings this production to life; not only is
she what psychologists call a YAVIS personality (young, attractive,
vivacious, intelligent and successful) but she has the voice
to match. She achieves the same effect in the role of Cleopatra
in the Christie-directed Glyndebourne DVD recording of Handel’s
Giulio Cesare (OA0950D - see review.)
As there, she tends to go ‘a bit overboard at time’,
as Kirk McElhearn puts it, though less than before - and it’s
more appropriate to the role of Poppea. If she’s a little
squally at times, that’s not something that bothers me.
She’s already a pluralist in the role, having played the
part under Emanuelle Haïm’s direction (Decca 0743339
Anna Bonitatibus is becoming something of a fixture in the Christie
pantheon as the put-upon wife - as Dido in La Didone
and here as Octavia. She also takes the role of the long-suffering
Juno in Cavalli’s Ercole Amante, conducted by Ivor
Bolton (Opus Arte OA1020D - review).
Of the three principal singers she gets at least as much applause
as the more glamorous protagonists - José Iruzun suggests
more than de Niese on the night that he was there - and deservedly
so. Her Addio Roma is particularly impressive.
Antonio Abete portrays a convincingly weighty Seneca both vocally
and in acting terms and Max Cencic is convincing in both respects
as Ottone. Indeed, there isn’t a single weak member of
the cast. A bit of ham acting from José Lemos as the
Nurse doesn’t come at all amiss.
The accompaniment is not over-large; though two harpsichords
may seem extravagant - one from which William Christie directs
- in the event the sound is well balanced. Christie’s
guiding hand ensures that all is well, as, indeed, it does in
his two DVD recordings of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (Virgin
4906129 and Dynamic 33641 - review)
and the DVD of Cavalli’s La Didone which I recently
greatly enjoyed: Opus Arte DVD OA1080D - my review of this should
have appeared by the time that you read this.
The costumes are neither period (Roman or renaissance) nor modern
but neutral. They may look a bit drab, but they don’t
distract your attention, and that’s a big plus for me.
The same is true of the scenery - like the Australian Don
Giovanni which I’ve praised in my Download News 2012/20
(Opera Australia OPOZ56024BD, blu-ray, OPOZ56023DVD), they are
pretty minimalist but, again, that’s better than setting
Don Giovanni in a wood or Handel’s Rinaldo
in a school. Basically there are three sets - one each for the
palace and Poppea’s and Seneca’s houses. If, as
José Irurzun says, the action is sometimes static, that’s
as much Monteverdi’s fault as anyone’s - if there’s
not much for the singers to do, I’d rather the producer
didn’t invent something silly for them.
Camerawork and sound are very good indeed - the former is not
too ‘busy’ and the latter is especially effective
when heard on a decent audio system. I doubt whether blu-ray
would have improved much.
Of all the versions currently available on CD and DVD, this
appears to be one of the least expensive at around £20.
Not that that should be the only argument in its favour, but
it is a strong secondary reason.
I do, however, have one serious reservation in that the documentation
is almost non-existent. I’m sure from my colleague’s
Seen and Heard review that the Madrid audience gleaned much
more information from their programmes than is available in
Virgin’s simple bi-fold leaflet.
Documentation - or lack thereof - apart, this is a very strong
contender indeed. It dramatically changed my opinion of Poppea
as an also-ran to L’Orfeo and Il Ritorno d’Ulisse.