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Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
L'Incoronazione di Poppea (opera in a prologue and three acts to a libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busanello, 1643)
Kate Lindsey, Nerone (mezzo-soprano)
Sonya Yoncheva, Poppea (soprano)
Carlo Vistoli, Ottone (countertenor)
Renato Dolcini, Seneca (baritone)
Stéphanie d' Oustrac, Ottavia (mezzo-soprano)
Ana Quintans, Drusilla, Virtue (soprano)
Dominique Visse, Arnalta (countertenor)
Marcel Beekman, Nutrice (tenor)
Alessandro Fisher, Lucano (tenor)
Tamara Banjesevic, Damigella, Fortune (soprano)
Lea Desandre, Amore (mezzo-soprano)
Virgile Ancely, Mercurio (bass)
With Padraic Rowan (bass-baritone), David Webb (tenor), Claire Debono (soprano)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Dancers from BODHI Project and the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance
Opera directed by Jan Lauwers
rec. live August 2018, Haus für Mozart, Salzburg
Libretto and translations included
DVD – NTSC Sound in PCM 2.0 and Dolby 5.1 surround
HARMONIA MUNDI HAF8902622/24 (DVD 195 mins; 3CDs 186:38]

My initial impressions of the DVD of this recent Salzburg production were less than encouraging. I was always led to believe that Monteverdi’s L'Incoronazione di Poppea was the first ever opera to be based upon history rather than myth, although the allegorical prologue still features the usual suspects Fortune, Virtue and Love, and its visual rendering here seems discomfiting if not plain distracting. Belgian director Jan Lauwers is a renowned polymath artist and co-leader of the experimental Needcompany ensemble. He specialises in theatre which prioritises multiplicity and simultaneity over anecdote and literalism. In this, seemingly his first opera production, it is to be expected that there will be a lot happening on stage, During the prologue the fates in turn are seen to be supporting individual dancers struggling hopelessly with various states of disablement, grappling with outsized, exaggerated crutches and frames – one assumes this is a rather heavy-handed allusion to a humanity that is in constant struggle. As the listener tries to find their bearings with the music, giant screens emerge above the stage, on which are projected live close-up images of the two major protagonists, Nero (Kate Lindsey) and Poppea (Sonya Yoncheva). This experience has less of the feel of witnessing the players in the tunnel prior to the FA Cup Final and more of entertainers hamming it up in the green room prior to a live broadcast of the Graham Norton show. Lindsey and Yoncheva pout, smirk, stick their tongues out and ‘act up’ – I found it jarring and pretentious. By the end of the Prologue, the screens had disappeared, thankfully for good. If there was an aesthetic point being made here, it completely eluded me.

L’Incoronazione di Poppea is rich in music of abundance and profound allure. It is also very long and extremely static, and almost exclusively comprises scenes involving no more than two characters. It must thus be a nightmare to direct, and here the visual focus throughout its three-hour duration is on the twisting, heaving, sometimes slo-mo gyrations of the exceptionally talented dancers. Throughout the entire opera they take turns to spin round on a wheel in the centre of the stage (the world turning, presumably?). Not just that, but the dancers combine regularly in strangely beautiful tableaux vivants in various states of undress, emphasising the raw physicality of their movement and recalling the nude drawings of a Raphael or a Durer.

Given that the composer is Monteverdi (arguably – but that’s a discussion for another time) and that the music is in the humane and respectful hands of William Christie (who directs from the keyboard) it is inevitable that any visual distractions will evaporate and the music will take hold. It happens for the first time in the third scene of Act 1, the first to involve Nero and Poppea. Yoncheva’s lush soprano is immediately arresting, luxuriant yet nuanced, delicately projected yet voluptuous. Nero as voiced by Lindsey is harsh by comparison, a raw masculine mezzo which seems dramatically perfect, although one cannot help but wonder if these two voices will ‘blend’. In dramatic terms, the love scenes between the two lack for nothing in passion or electricity, yet frankly neither character elicits an iota of sympathy (from me at least) throughout the entire opera (which is perhaps as it should be, and a mark of the superb acting skills of both performers). If one accepts that then, why is it that, some three hours later, at the final silence of Pur ti miro, the tears are cascading unabated down my cheeks?

There’s much to enjoy on the journey. Stéphanie d'Oustrac turns in an adroitly pitched account of Nero’s spurned wife Ottavia. In a story which drips with cruelty, even her schemings in Act 2 elicit a degree of sympathy. Her two big arias, Disprezzata Regina in Act 1 and especially the magnificent Addio Roma cut to the quick. Carlo Vistoli’s countertenor voice is a supple, strong instrument; Ottone’s transformation from dumped boyfriend to reluctant would-be murderer is credible up to a point; the dramatic device whereby the character assumes the disguise of his new love Drusilla (the effervescent Ana Quintans) is rather clumsily avoided. The most likeable character in the whole show is Nero’s doomed philosopher Seneca; baritone Renato Dolcini invests the role with a natural and affecting gravitas, although his vocal tone seems more luxuriant and comfortable in the part’s higher reaches. There are two nurse roles in L’Incoronazione; inevitably Dominique Visse occupies one of them. His Arnalta is not unexpectedly engaging, but there is a calmness and world-weariness in the character’s ‘voice of experience’ that Visse conveys with great subtlety. However, tenor Marcel Beekman’s even camper Nutrice is arguably even more satisfying – his comic timing is a delight. The supporting cast sing and move with terrific vim; each of the singers emerges with great clarity in the surround option of the DVD.

The booklet lists a pared-down grouping of Les Arts Florissants which comprises sixteen players, including luminaries such as Thomas Dunford and Elizabeth Kenny. Groups of musicians are deployed either side of the stage, with Christie directing from his harpsichord placed left. The reduced forces are absolutely no impediment to a riot of beguiling instrumental colour. It’s a real delight seeing the players so engaged by the antics on stage - some enter into the spirit of things by sporting oddly-styled headwear. At lighter moments there are plenty of nods and arched eyebrows. Christie leads with his customary energy and conviction – there is no sag whatsoever.

The set is lavishly packaged. Having watched the DVD, I sampled the CDs to assess the two- speaker sound; whilst the instrumental and vocal impact is rendered pretty faithfully, I found the extraneous stage noise produced by the constant shuffling, movement and dancing of the non-vocal artists a little irksome – it is rather relentless. The booklet comprises the full libretto translated into English, French and German together with fascinating interviews with Christie and Lauwers and an essay which places the work in its historical context. There are also a number of arresting stills from the production. In purely musical terms, this is as fine a performance of L’incoronazione as I’ve heard – although if I just wanted to listen to the work, the decade-old Glossa recording (GCD 920916) by La Venexiana under the late Claudio Cavina is extraordinarily atmospheric and would retain its place as my first choice.

Richard Hanlon

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