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Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea - A Survey of the Recordings
By Ralph Moore

If you are an opera lover unsure whether to venture beyond your sweet spot of late 18th and 19th Century works into earlier works by such as Monteverdi, father of the art form, I advise you to start by sampling this opera in the most unlikely place: at the end, with the final duet of the opera, "Put ti miro, pur ti godo", whose luscious suspensions and yearning eroticism are as sensual as anything by Puccini. Of that more anon.

L’incoronazione di Poppea, Monteverdi’s last work, was first performed in 1643 and is the earliest in the repertoire of regularly staged operas. It is unclear how much of its music Monteverdi actually wrote himself and how much was contributed by other composers and collaborators in much the same way that a painting may be attributed to the school or workshop under the auspices of a great artist rather than necessarily being completed by him. The current scholarly view is that by no means all of Poppea was written by Monteverdi himself and that the work is the product of the accretions over time of music by composers such as Francesco Cavalli, Benedetto Ferrari and Francesco Sacrati; indeed, the final recording below attributes the music to all four composers plus “anon.” The most famous example of dubious attribution is the final duet, now believed to have been Cavalli’s work, but that debate regarding authorship will probably never be fully resolved; meanwhile this glorious, complex and enigmatic work will continue to be performed under the name of Monteverdi.

The opera does not conform to any convenient genre, although it could conceivably be called a tragicomedy. It is fundamentally a critique of the abuses of power but also ostensibly celebrates the supremacy of erotic, carnal love, creating a “heaven on earth” as personified by a victorious Amore (Cupid) triumphing over Fortune and Virtue. There is no hint of Platonic or Aristotelian philia and agape definitely goes out of the window; the apotheosis of Nero’s and Poppea’s love is achieved at the expense of mocking decent, moral norms. As Cupid says, love “can change the world” – but not necessarily for the better. However, as Ivor Bolton says in the notes to his recording, there is an inherent ambiguity in the opera’s stance; is it “a triumph of immorality” or “a manifest for stoical philosophical value”? As with many an opera and play, the beauty of the music and language combined somehow nullifies or transcends the evil of the malefactors, creating an ambivalent tension in the audience’s response uneasily poised between admiration and loathing, just as Pinkerton’s music tells us that he is an engaging rogue when in fact he is a heartless bastard, and Iago’s sardonic wit, in combination with his readiness to take us into his confidence, confuses our moral compass. Nobody in this opera is really attractive or sympathetic and most are opportunistic schemers, but the interest lies in the complexity of their psychology and the drama of their situations. Seneca, the monitory – but also pompous and turgid - voice of morality, is silenced by the gruesome twosome of the amorous couple Nero and Poppea, but the apparent triumph of their wickedness is ironically undercut by the sure knowledge – at least of the audience of the day, having been classically educated - of subsequent events, whereby Nero kicked the pregnant Poppea to death and committed suicide, Ottone, the exiled ex-husband of Poppea, succeeded as Emperor, but ruled for only three months before he too committed suicide, and Octavia was sentenced to death by Nero for being too popular with the citizens and a constant reminder of his infidelity. We must remember, too, that the Venetian audience was watching a story which depicts the Roman city-state as thoroughly degenerate and thereby implicitly asserts the moral superiority of Venice. Or perhaps the aspersions cast on Seneca and his philosophy reflect the fractious nature of Monteverdi’s relationship with the Duke of Mantua and his court, which was a centre for neo-Stoical thought, culminating in his leaving the Duke’s employ to take up the post of Director of Music at St Mark’s, Venice, where he remained for the rest of his life. Furthermore, Seneca criticises the Nero’s immoral and autocratic style of governance as irrational and counter-productive (“destroying obedience”) and perhaps again contrasting it with the benevolence of the Doge and his council in the republic of Venice. Thus, beneath the- machinations of a kind of classical Bonnie and Clyde there lie several more layers of narrative symbolism.

This is one of the first operas to be based on historical people and events, and depicts individual characters vividly, although the librettist Busenello alters their true personalities for his own dramaturgical purposes. The action more or less conforms to the dramatic Unities in that he rearranged and condensed the events of seven years into a single day and there are only three locations – Poppea’s villa, Nero’s palace and Seneca’s house – all within the walls of Rome. Another interesting feature of the opera is that although it opens in classical manner with a debate between three immortals – rather like Wagner’s Norns - it does not just portray the (not-so-)good and the great, but in Shakespearian manner also has the lower classes comment sarcastically and disrespectfully on the shenanigans of their betters, Thus, early on in Act One, just before he enters, two soldiers discuss the Emperor Nero’s bad behaviour, reminding me of the conversation between the two Roman soldiers which opens Berlioz’ L’enfance du Christ - although I doubt whether the French composer was familiar with Monteverdi’s opera. In similarly vulgar mode, the page Valletto mocks the aged philosopher Seneca, threatening to set fire to his beard and library and the old Nurse tries to talk some common sense into the infatuated Poppea. There is a temptation to attempt to increase the opera’s appeal to modern audiences by exaggerating the comic element arising from the supposedly amusing antics of plebeians, but this can result in too much desperate campiness if it is too crudely applied, as in Dominique Visse’s drag queen portrayal of the old nurse, Arnalta for Bolton (see below); traditionally, that kind of “comic old bag” role was sung in Venice by a high tenor. More recent recordings and productions cast every main character except the basso profundo Seneca as either a soprano, mezzo-soprano, treble, haut contre or counter-tenor, which is all very well from the point of view of authenticity but hardly does much for variety and there is still something to be said for casting tenors and baritones in some of the masculine roles.

Monteverdi apparently had an ensemble of about ten players, consisting only of strings for the orchestral sections and a combination of strings and keyboard instruments for the continuo; recordings variously combine violins, viola da gamba, double bass, guitar, chitarrone, lute, harp, harpsichord and organ, but filling out the orchestration with more string instruments and wind and brass such as cornets, shawms, recorders, trumpets etc. is now regarded as inauthentic – although some good recordings below do so and I cannot say that choice much exercises me. Similarly, purists argue that the singers should be accompanied only by continuo, with additional instruments featuring only in the ritornelli; others are of the opinion that he would have expected some elaboration of the continuo. Again, I have no strong opinion as long as the music is not rendered too rigid or fussy and the singers are not overwhelmed – unlikely when only a few instruments are in use. Much of the music is through-composed in a much more modern manner, in the sense that arias, ariosos and recitativos are not necessarily differentiated and some characters are even limited to singing only recitative. The most famous passages are the chromatic, three-voiced madrigal sung by a chorus of Seneca’s friends chorus begging him not to commit suicide and the glorious concluding love duet.

There is also the question of the voice-types employed for Nero. The range of options is to cast Nero either as a soprano, a castrato, a countertenor or a tenor. Supposedly for musical reasons, Vartolo uses both a soprano and a tenor for the role, although there is no real need to transpose the role down for a tenor and what can work on a recording is obviously impractical for performance. A soprano was the preferred, and historically more correct, choice before Harnoncourt’s first recording, but he reverted to a tenor for his second recorded – and filmed - account; since then, castratos being in short supply, the casting seems to be purely a matter of taste and conviction. Again, I don’t have strong views but agree that while dramatic verisimilitude is better served by having a lower-voiced Nero, the entwining of two higher register voices accentuates the sensuality of their music, rather as the amour of the Marschallin and Octavian works in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.

As was normal in Monteverdi’s day, the singers of the more minor parts often double up in roles and supply the basis of the chorus unless an actual choir is employed – which, again, is not “authentic”. Only the two older and the Garrido recordings here do the latter, but Garrido also swims against the tide by using brass instruments.

The opera was briefly revived in 1651 then remained dormant and neglected until the early 20C. I consider fourteen recordings below, not by any means every one available but a fair spread. The discography is not vast and I have excluded recordings made before the Glyndebourne studio account in which Pritchard conducts Raymond Leppard’s new edition, on the grounds that they were cut and that their performance practice is surely too far removed from what Monteverdi intended. There is a complete libretto and two main sources for the score but neither of the latter is the original manuscript: the earlier Venice edition, marked up with lots of additions, cuts and alterations, mostly by Cavalli, and the later, slightly fuller but “clean” Naples version; then there is a sketchy instrumental score to take into consideration, so conductors have to make decisions regarding what to use. As a result, there are often considerable differences to be found amongst the recordings below. Alan Curtis’ edition, as per his own recording below, is mostly the Naples version which is also used by Malgoire, Gardiner and Cavina, but the Venice edition is the one most widely employed.

As much as I admire Janet Baker, I have not reviewed the Chandos version in English as the work must surely be heard in the original Italian and that has a special status as a different kind of document. I am by no means a baroque opera specialist, but I think the quality of voice and a singer’s ability to project character via the text and music are of paramount importance just as they are in Wagner, and I consider editions and orchestral arrangements to be secondary questions, without by any means discounting their importance. Poppea is stylistically positioned between Renaissance modal music and the “operatic”, High Baroque manner of Lully, Rameau and Handel, so singers should ideally steer a course between those styles, especially as so much of the music is free-flowing, declamatory, and intoned over the continuo rather than being “set piece” in format.

The Recordings:

John Pritchard – 1963 (studio, stereo) EMI
Orchestra - Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus - Glyndebourne Festival
Poppea - Magda László
Nerone - Richard Lewis
Ottavia - Frances Bible
Ottone - Walter Alberti
Seneca - Carlo Cava
Drusilla - Lydia Marimpietri
Arnalta - Oralia Domínguez
Lucano - Hugues Cuénod
Pallade - Elizabeth Bainbridge
Valletto - Duncan Robertson
Damigella - Soo-Bee Lee
Amore - Annon Lee Silver
Liberto - John Shirley-Quirk
Littore - Dennis Wicks
Primo soldato - Dennis Brandt
Secondo soldato - Gerald English

As a young man. before I knew anything much about opera, I bought an EMI sampler and among the random treasures which caught my imagination was the chromatic madrigal "Non morir, Seneca" sung with real passion and conviction by the chorus in this recording. The involvement of a large orchestra and chorus here has been critically decried as “a travesty”, which is surely going a bit far, but there is no getting away from the fact that the use of larger forces has long been discredited and the brass in particular now sounds incongruous. Furthermore, this recording is ironically distinguished by the fact that characters are sung by singers of the same, “correct” gender, as opposed to there being any breeches or travestito roles, even though Ottone, for example, sung here by a baritone, was originally sung by an alto, Arnalta was traditionally sung by a tenor rather than the mezzo here and Cupid should surely be sung by a boy treble, not a piping soprano.

This pioneering recording uses the same abridged edition by Raymond Leppard as that staged at Glyndebourne. which brought the work to the notice of the public; for example, the Prologue is cut – no great loss, I think - and the opera begins with just a brief Sinfonia – but the chorus of consuls and tribunes “A te, sovrana Augusta”, just before the final duet and omitted in some recordings, is included. The emphasis here is upon the theatricality of the music; however, even in the 60’s objections were voiced to the illegitimate lushness of the thicker orchestration with its Romanticised textures. Conversely, the singing is rather refined, restrained and even reverential by more robust, modern standards and Magda László’s soprano, in particular, is a bit thin and tremulous; she sings prettily but sounds too tentative to embody the tough, scheming Poppea credibly. I like Richard Lewis’ slightly husky tenor and it is a treat to have one of the great mezzo-sopranos of the 20C singing Arnalta so richly, steadily and beautifully; her lullaby to Poppea is a highlight and you would never guess from her honeyed tones that this is a singer who could knock people out of the balcony with her stentorian Amneris - unless you also note the depth and volume of her tenorial lower register in that lullaby and the celebratory “Oggi sarŕ Poppea” where she anticipates the reflected glory she will receive once Poppea has been crowned Empress. Carlo Cava is a solid, sonorous Seneca. Frances Bible and Walter Alberti are both more than adequate as Ottavia and Ottone respectively without being especially memorable – and of course a baritone Ottone is no longer acceptable any more than we expect to hear a tenor Nerone.

There is still much to enjoy in this recording and although you might prefer a more modern, uncut version with the roles allocated to more authentic voice-types and the orchestration is sparer, it still has its place as a supplement.
Carlo Franci – 1966 (live, mono) Opera d’Oro; Maggio Live
Orchestra & Chorus - Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Poppea - Claudia Parada
Nerone - Mirto Picchi
Ottavia - Mirella Parutto
Ottone - Renato Cesari
Seneca - Boris Christoff
Arnalta - Oralia Domínguez
Lucano - Nicola Monti
(Incomplete cast list)

It might be thought that I am including this live recording just for fun, it is so far removed from the diktats of modern scholarship and received wisdom concerning proper performance practice, but while it is tempting to mock its total lack of concern for – or even awareness of - “authenticity” and its complete indifference to staging “une édition intégrale”, being savagely cut, it’s less easy to sneer at an array of voices such as this, when today we have little or nothing to compare with them. A celebrated soprano, a first-class tenor, one of the 20C’s best mezzos, a great bass and a fine supporting cast – such as Nicola Monti, who sang on stage and recorded Elvino to Callas’ Sonnambula - make this an alluring prospect for the opera buff.

Claudia Parada has a dark, ductile soprano, tonally lower-centred than many a Poppea, making a pleasing change. Mirto Picchi is a very virile, heroic Nero – hardly apt for such a swine – but his tenor falls gratefully on the ear (no wonder he sang and recorded Giasone to Callas’ Medea). Domínguez repeats the sublimely beautiful Arnalta she recorded for Lewis, if anything singing even better this time. Mirella Parutto had only just switched from soprano to mezzo and here sings Ottavia with tremendous presence, security and richness of tone – and like Dominguez, her lower register is formidable. The inimitable tones of Boris Christoff enliven the character of Seneca, making the old bore almost too interesting. Renato Cesari brings a handsome, sonorous baritone to the role of Ottone. The Page is sung in lively fashion by a tenor, and the whole thing is beautifully played with great gusto and elan by the Florentine orchestra, with well-sprung rhythms and a sonorous dignity in the slower, grander passages.

This is in merely acceptable mono sound with the voices well forward and the prompter frequently audible, and the cuts mean that the glories of its inauthentic singing and playing can be recommended only as a supplement – but I would not want to be without it. (Unfortunately, it is currently rather rare and expensive.)
Nikolaus Harnoncourt - 1973-74 (studio, stereo) Teldec
Orchestra - Wiener «Concentus Musicus»
La Fortuna - Jane Gartner
La Virtů - Rotraud Hansmann
Poppea - Helen Donath
Nerone - Elisabeth Söderström
Ottavia - Cathy Berberian
Ottone - Paul Esswood
Seneca - Giancarlo Luccardi
Drusilla - Rotraud Hansmann
Nutrice - Maria Minetto
Arnalta - Carlo Gaifa
Lucano - Philip Langridge
Pallade - Jane Gartner
Valletto – Margaret Baker
Damigella - Jane Gartner
Amore - Unnamed
Mercurio - Enrico Fissore
Primo soldato - Philip Langridge
Secondo soldato - Kurt Equiluz

Nearly fifty years since it was made, this recording is wearing extraordinarily well and we should bear in mind that it has deservedly been a major influence in the Monteverdi revival. The main objection to it by modern purists is that Harnoncourt filled out orchestral parts too much with decorative melodic embellishment, though for the novice especially, the added richness of texture will probably be welcome even if some might demand leaner, sparer sounds. Harnoncourt took pains to ensure that authentic-sounding instruments were played in the correct style for this, the first uncut recording; his conducting is typically emphatic, rhythmically speaking, but he is also capable of relaxing to accommodate the tenderer moments. Furthermore, he assembled some outstanding solo voices ideally suited to this plangent, dignified, often surprisingly passionate music.

Monteverdi was concerned to depict the lives, lusts and lunacies of real people and Harnoncourt’s performers respond accordingly. For example, "Non morir, Seneca" is here sung with great urgency and emotional sincerity and Elisabeth Söderström sings beautifully while still suggesting that Nero is always essentially unhinged. Poppea is exquisitely sung by the pure-voiced Helen Donath, a heroine and role-model to Renee Fleming for good reason. The large role of Ottone is handsomely sung by countertenor Paul Esswood in his prime, his voice warm and flexible. There are two fine basses in Enrico Fissore and Giancarlo Luccardi, who sings a grave, noble Seneca. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, without a weak link and featuring some distinguished names who had important solo careers, such as Cathy Berberian, Kurt Equiluz and Philip Langridge.

The only drawback to the bargain issue in Teldec’s "Das Alte Werk" series is the absence of a libretto; otherwise, this remains a highly recommendable version of Monteverdi's last and greatest work which has not really dated.

(Naturally, “Building a Library” on BBC Radio 3’s “CD Review” a while back typically dismissed this on the doctrinaire grounds that it wasn’t sufficiently up-to-date HIP.)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt - 1978 (studio, stereo) Teldec
Orchestra - Monteverdi Ensemble der Zürcher Oper
La Fortuna - Renate Lenhart
La Virtů - Helrun Gardow
Poppea - Rachel Yakar
Nerone - Eric Tappy
Ottavia - Trudeliese Schmidt
Ottone - Paul Esswood
Seneca - Matti Salminen
Drusilla - Janet Perry
Nutrice - Maria Minetto
Arnalta - Alexander Oliver
Lucano - Philippe Huttenlocher
Amore - Klaus Brettschneider/ Wilhelm Wiedl
Valleto – Peter Keller
Damigella - Suzanne Calabro
Liberto - Rudolf A. Hartmann
Littore - Francisco Araiza
Primo soldato - Peter Straka,
Secondo soldato - Fritz Peter

Harnoncourt reverted to a tenor Nero here, presumably because this was the soundtrack for a filmed version and required more dramatic verisimilitude – although I don’t see why a female Nero is acceptable for the stage but not the screen, given that the audience for baroque opera in any format cannot be that diverse. Similarly, a high tenor was employed for the “trouser role” of Valletto.

Compared with Harnoncourt’s 1974 recording, cuts of nearly an hour are made to accommodate the film format, which surely rules this out as a prime audio recommendation, although it now fits on two CDs. Perhaps as a result of this recording having a tauter construction for dramatic purposes, Harnoncourt reverts to his habitually more percussive style of direction and I miss some of the tenderness he evokes in the previous, audio recording, but I still like his perky, animated manner here; the orchestral textures are delightful. As with the first audio recording, the presence of wind instruments such as recorders and shawms is contrary to modern conviction but I like the sound they make.

The singing is predictably pleasing. Amore is a boy treble (two, in fact, in turn) as he should be. Paul Esswood is once again superb, his gentle, fluty tones negotiating the coloratura expertly. Rachel Yakar, too, has a velvety sound and her soft singing is very seductive but she rather overdoes the breathy ardour bit. Eric Tappy deploys his pliant, tenor very musically even if I don’t think his grainy sound is quite right for Nero (although he would have looked handsome on film had he not been kitted out in a hideous red wig). Again, perhaps because of the cramped medium, the lovers’ exchanges are first rather low-key but warm up towards the end; their duet in Act 3, Scene 3 is especially passionate and the final duet, preceded by a raucous welcome from the consuls and tribunes, is perfectly paced and beautifully sung. Alexander Oliver does a thoroughly pleasing comic turn as Arnalta, amusing and characterful without descending into clichéd caricature. Trudeliese Schmidt sings with passionate intensity without compromising control and she makes frequent telling use of her lower register, but her tone can turn hooty. Maria Minetto makes a very credible Nurse, sounding old but singing vividly. Casting Matti Salminen as Seneca could only have been an advantage; too many basses who essay the role lack the depth and resonance to manage it satisfactorily. His sung vowels were always odd – distorted and hollow – and in combination with his idiosyncratic vocal production they make him an acquired taste, but he brings weight and a desirable pomposity to his depiction of the philosopher. I cannot see the rationale behind having the Page sung by a tenor but that is often the case so we’ll let that pass. Janet Perry sings very attractively as Drusilla and Rudolf A. Hartmann puts in a brief but impressive turn as Mercury.

If you don’t mind the judicious cuts, the elaborated orchestration and a tenor Nero, there is much to enjoy here, with hardly a weakness in the casting and a consistent desire to bring out both the beauty and the drama of the music.

Alan Curtis – 1980 (live, stereo) EMI Warner
Orchestra - Il Complesso Barocco
La Fortuna - Carolyn Watkinson
La Virtů - Judith Nelson
Poppea - Carmen Balthrop
Nerone - Carolyn Watkinson
Ottavia - Andrea Bierbaum
Ottone - Henri Ledroit
Seneca - Ulrik Cold
Drusilla - Judith Nelson
Arnalta - Carlo Gaifa
Lucano - Guy de Mey
Pallade - Judith Nelson
Amore - Peter Ratincky
Mercurio - Harry van der Kamp
Liberto - Ben Holt
Primo soldato - Guy de Mey
Secondo soldato - Philip Schuddeboom

Alan Curtis’ own edition of the score is used here, purified of the corruptions and accretions of the years and essentially constituting a “modern” version which, despite its age now, will satisfy the period enthusiast. Only two harpsichords, and occasionally, a lute, are used for the continuo and a little string band plays the ritornellos. This is, in a way, the antidote or even antithesis, of Harnoncourt’s elaborative way with the music, although “illegitimate” recorders are also in use in the otherwise very light orchestration.

The recording has an intimate atmosphere, with both voices and instruments recorded close to the microphones, despite this being live, with a bit of stage thumping. Much of the singing here, especially from the male contingent, is worthy and conventional: Ulrik Cold makes a competent but not very vivid or individual Seneca and is often too light and dry of voice, almost indistinguishable at the beginning of Act 2 from the Mercury. The Liberto is constricted of voice; indeed, there are too many bleaters and one particular irritating “caprino” tenor who spoils the vocal ensembles (especially noticeable in “Non morir, Seneca”; I think it is the same singer, Guy de Mey, who also sings Lucano).

Carolyn Watkinson, now retired, was an estimable baroque singer with considerable coloratura facility but her harsh upper notes suggest that the role of Nero lay too high for her contralto; she was surely happier singing roles originally written for castrati and sounds lovely when the music does not go into the upper regions. The final duet is sublime. Countertenor Henri Ledoit sounds more comfortable and his duets with Andrea Bierbaum’s smooth, even Ottavia go well but he is a bit droopy and under-powered. Carmen Balthrop as Poppea; has a light, silvery sound with a steely core entirely apt for the little schemer. Another satisfying singer here is the tenor Carlo Gaifa as Arnalta; he is in character without excessive posturing and sings his lullaby steadily and beautifully in a pure falsetto. I like the boy treble Amore, too

This is a mixed bag. There is some lovely singing and some which is decidedly not so lovely; in truth, I find the whole thing a bit dull, low-key and worthy - it is as if all the performers have been told to tone it down.

Jean-Claude Malgoire – 1984 (studio, digital) CBS/Sony
Orchestra - La Grande Ecurie et La Chambre du Roy
La Fortuna - Martine Masquelin
La Virtů - Catherine Dussaut
Poppea - Catherine Malfitano
Nerone - John Elwes
Ottavia - Zehava Gal
Ottone - Gérard Lesne
Seneca - Gregory Reinhart
Drusilla - Colette Alliot-Lugaz
Nutrice - Guy de Mey
Arnalta - Ian Honeyman
Lucano - Michael Goldthorpe
Pallade - Catherine Dussaut
Valletto - Dominique Visse
Damigella - Françoise Destembert
Amore - Dominique Visse
Mercurio - Philippe Cantor
Liberto - Michel Laplénie
Littore - Jacques Bona
Primo soldato - Michael Goldthorpe
Secondo soldato - Michel Laplénie

Although it is many years since I listened to Malgoire’s recording of Handel’s Rinaldo for CBS, on reacquaintance with his distinctive orchestral sound via this Poppea, I find it instantly recognisable, with pleasingly twanging, astringent strings and squalling authentic wind instruments. The orchestration is mostly spare without being too unadorned but the ripieno sections are enhanced with brass. Just occasionally, I feel that Malgoire needs to inject more pace and propulsion into proceedings but those objections are fleeting.

There array of singers here is impressive; not a wobbler among them – but you must accept the now discredited casting of Nero as a tenor with its attendant impact on the sonorities of his duets with Poppea – although the drinking celebration song with Lucano arguably goes better. John Elwes makes him a properly petulant individual and sings neatly, but with some nasal constriction. Catherine Malfitano lightens her Salome voice to sing with great purity and power while still sounding alluring and seductive. Gérard Lesne is a lovely, countertenor Ottone. Zehava Gal is excellent as Ottavia, her smoky mezzo conveying passion without over-emoting. Colette Alliot-Lugaz sings beautifully as Drusilla, with a flickering vibrato intensifying her plangent soprano. As he does for Hickox (see next below) Gregory Reinhart sings a lean, neat but resonant Seneca, displaying considerable agility in his coloratura, the only issue being that he sounds rather too young and he doesn’t attempt a low C. The travestito roles are sung by tenors and all the supporting, smaller roles are all very elegantly sung; Dominique Visse’s uncannily feminine timbre well suits both the roles he undertakes here. The great surprise for me is that unlike his recording under Cavena a quarter of a century later, Ian Honeyman here sings a thoroughly restrained and euphonious Arnalta without a hint of the mugging which so blighted that 2009 recording.

The excellent digital sound is an asset, too. There is so much to enjoy and admire in the virtually flawless singing and playing in this recording that as long as you like a tenor Nerone, this is a top recommendation. Sadly, it was only briefly available on CD and is now hard to obtain, but you can buy it very reasonably as a download.

Richard Hickox – 1988 (studio, digital) Virgin
Orchestra - City of London Baroque Sinfonia
La Fortuna - Catherine Pierard
La Virtů - Juliet Booth
Poppea - Arleen Auger
Nerone - Della Jones
Ottavia - Linda Hirst
Ottone - James Bowman
Seneca - Gregory Reinhart
Drusilla - Sarah Leonard
Nutrice - Catherine Denley
Arnalta - Adrian Thompson
Lucano - Mark Tucker
Pallade - Catherine Pierard
Valletto - Juliet Booth
Damigella - Janice Watson
Amore - Samuel Linay
Mercurio - Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Liberto - John Graham-Hall
Littore - Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Primo soldato - John Graham-Hall
Secondo soldato - Lynton Atkinson

This is an anglophone cast, mostly British with the exception of the Americans Gregory Reinhart and Arleen Auger. She specialised in Baroque and early Classical music and was renowned for the purity of her voice and the elegance of her style – and indeed, this is a stylish recording.

All the indications are good, as proceedings are opened by an animated, tangy-sounding band in the Sinfonia followed by two “proper” voices in the goddesses and a cute, characterful boy treble as Cupid, all in excellent balance with the instruments - and the excellent Catherine Pierard later doubles as Pallas Athene. Next, James Bowman’s warm sound is a known and dependable quantity and from then on, as each voice enters, virtually every one is of high quality – unlike, for example, the next two sets reviewed, which almost exclusively have voices ranging between the dire and the dull (Jennifer Larmore excepted).The two soldiers are neat, flexible and fluent; then we are introduced to two very beautiful, but identifiably different, voices in Auger’s pliant, plangent Poppea and Della Jones’ suitably tougher, more assertive Nero with a touch more steel and a slightly more evident vibrato than Auger’s more delicate voice – just right. Their repeated “Addios” concluding Act 1 Scene 3 are just exquisitely poised, aided by a cunning fade in the sound engineering. A similar distancing effect is applied for Mercury’s voice for his warning to Seneca – a baroque Todesverkündigung. The Mercurio, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, deploys a pleasing bass and impressive control in the florid ornamentation of his music. Tenor Adrian Thompson makes an excellent Arnalta, faintly androgynous without overdoing it. He sings his lullaby neatly and steadily. However, I am much less enamoured of Linda Hirst’s alternately hooty and scratchy Ottavia which is a real blot on the set; she just sounds like a grumpy matron, especially when you hear that her Nurse, Catherine Denley, has a much nicer voice. Things pick up again with the entry of Seneca sung by the smooth, sonorous bass Gregory Reinhart and Juliet Booth is a spirited Page.

I rather like the illegitimate brace of cornets in the final paean sung by the consuls and tribunes, “A te, sovrana augusta” which is splendidly sung by the small ensemble of four voices rather than a whole chorus. The concluding duet with its floated, suspended seconds and thirds is sung by Auger and Jones with great tenderness and restraint; it is celestial.

A libretto and English translation are provided. This was the inevitable surprise in the survey and leaps towards the top of my recommendations. If only the Ottavia had been more gratefully cast, as, in my estimation, it would otherwise have been flawless.
Alberto Zedda – 1988 (live, digital) Nuova Era; United Classics
Orchestra - Orchestra Pro Arte Bassano
La Fortuna - Kumiko Yoshi
La Virtů - Vittoria Mazzoni
Poppea - Daniela Dessi
Nerone - Josella Ligi
Ottavia - Adelisa Tabiadon
Ottone - Susanna Anselmi
Seneca - Armando Caforio
Drusilla - Maria Angeles Peters
Nutrice - Nicoletta Ciliento
Arnalta - Carmen González
Lucano - Michele Farruggia
Pallade - Anna Caterina Antonacci
Valletto - Barbara Lavarian
Damigella - Cristina Jannicola
Amore - Anna Caterina Antonacci
Mercurio - Pietro Spagnoli
Littore - Giuseppe De Matteis

I suggest that you don't buy this set unless you have a masochistic desire to listen to a recording in which the prompter often makes a more agreeable sound than the most of the singers in the supporting cast. I jest - ho-ho - but in all honesty they represent a pretty wretched assemblage of poor voices. I have already admitted to being somewhat outside my comfort zone in this genre, but you don't need to be a chicken to know a rotten egg and surely the notion that third-rate singers would do in Baroque opera has never been in vogue; recordings previous to this, such as those by Harnoncourt, demonstrate that you can to a large degree embrace “authenticity” but still employ first-class voices. You have only to listen to the squalling of the trio of ill-tuned singers impersonating Fortuna, Virtů and Amore, in the opening scene, to know that you are not in for three hours of unmitigated aural pleasure. The alto who sings Arnalta sounds like an elderly lady. The Drusilla is shrill. Seneca should be intoned by a secure, imposing bass of the Kurt Moll school, not the unsteady groaner we get here; his low C on his concluding "la strada" is hilarious - like the death throes of a hippo. He is suitably accompanied by a batch of comrades each of whom is a worse singer than the last, including a horribly nasal tenor singing Liberto. Just when you think you've heard it all, two sopranos try to sing a duet for Valletto and "una Damigella"; they can scarcely hold a note between them. I really don't know where distinguished musicologist and conductor Alberto Zedda found this bunch.

Goodness knows what celebrated sopranos Daniela Dessi and Josella Ligi thought of their colleagues. I like their voices and they have some lovely moments, but they sound thoroughly depressed by the time that final, ironically sublime duet comes around and it lacks the quivering sensuality required. To be fair, Adelisa Tabiadon as Ottavia is competent and Susanna Anselmi's strong, warm mezzo makes a very attractive, quasi-masculine Ottone but the four good, lead lady singers cannot carry the enterprise alone. Zedda follows Harnoncourt’s example by embellishing the score with what is now considered to be inauthentic and superfluous instrumentation, but that is hardly the issue here.

I could better put up with the hackers in the audience, the noisy prompter, the sudden rumblings and drop-outs in the sound and the excessive vibrato in too many voices if the general standard of singing were better. Every imperfection is magnified by absurdly close microphones; one is placed, it seems, about three inches from the harp (track 2 CD 2). Although it is a cheap way to get to know music which is usually on an expensive three- or four-disc set, I suggest that you resist its meretricious charms and find another, better recording.

René Jacobs - 1990 (studio, digital) Harmonia Mundi
Orchestra - Concerto Vocale
La Fortuna - Hanne Mari Orbaek
La Virtů - Maria-Cristina Kiehr
Poppea - Daničle Borst
Nerone - Guillemette Laurens
Ottavia - Jennifer Larmore
Ottone - Axel Köhler
Seneca - Michael Schopper
Drusilla - Lena Lootens
Nutrice - Dominique Visse
Arnalta - Christoph Homberger
Lucano - Guy de Mey
Pallade - Regina Jacobi
Valletto - Christina Hügman
Amore - Martina Bovet
Mercurio - Gerd Türk
Littore - Andreas Lebeda

Given that I am rarely a fan of René Jacobs’ recordings, I am happy to note that the scale, ornamentation and instrumentation here are all exemplary, but - yes, the usual but – the voices leave something to be desired. Too many are, thin, breathy, squeaky and shallow – which flaws you can immediately hear in the opening trio. Matters do not improve with the entry of Axel Köhler as Ottone; his hooty, wavery sound, devoid of proper tonal centre affords little pleasure to my ears. He must have been out of sorts here, because he sounds much better for Ivor Bolton in the Farao recording (reviewed next), or perhaps he is one of those singers whose voice comes across better live than in the studio. Daničle Borst as Poppea and Guillemette Laurens as Nero have pleasant enough voices but there is very little difference in timbre between them, which makes their exchanges peculiarly bland and monotonous and there is little erotic tension in their final duet. Very few voices make me sit up until relief arrives in the person of the lovely Jennifer Larmore singing Ottavia and we are in another league of vocalism of the kind which includes vocal greats such as Janet Baker, Tatyana Troyanos and Frederica von Stade – whose voice hers resembles, yet it is instantly recognisable and individual. She is also able to invest the text with more depth of feeling and her virtuosity with ornamentation is yet another intensifying asset. There is a nice turn from the Venus in the finale and Regina Jacobi deploys a warm mezzo to make the most of her cameo appearance as Pallas Athena, but unfortunately she has only four lines to sing. Michael Schopper’s Seneca has a (somewhat groaned) low D and some facility with the coloratura but also a tremolo and sounds too young. The page Valletto is weakly sung,

Given that the singing here is generally undistinguished with only a couple of – albeit notable - exceptions, despite the beauty of the instrumental playing I cannot recommend this.

John Eliot Gardiner – 1993 (live, digital) Archiv
Orchestra - English Baroque Soloists
Poppea - Sylvia McNair
Nerone - Dana Hanchard
Ottavia - Anne Sofie von Otter
Ottone - Michael Chance
Seneca - Francesco Ellero d'Artegna
Drusilla - Catherine Bott
Nutrice - Roberto Balconi
Arnalta - Bernada Fink
Lucano - Mark Tucker
Valletto - Constanze Backes
Damigella - Marinella Pennicchi

This is quite a spare, ascetic account, eschewing much in the way of elaboration or ornamentation. With singers, instrumentalists and a conductor as seasoned as we have here, that isn’t going to be a problem as long as proceedings are sufficiently animated – but despite its polish, some find this recording a bit dull. Conversely, I find the emoting by the three goddesses in the opening scene to be overdone; too much swooping and sliding.

The cast is indeed generally very strong but by no means perfect. I have read unstinting praise for Michael Chance’s Ottone. He is acceptable but I don’t think he is a patch on Bowman or Esswood either for roundness of tone or intensity of expression, and there are some scratchy tonal voids in the centre of his voice. Pure-voiced soprano leggiero Sylvia McNair is all sweet, pouting guile and knowingness – very good, if sometimes a bit breathy. Dana Hanchard is the least-known among the principal singers here. It is good that her grainy, smoky tone differentiates her well from McNair and sounds more masculine; she definitely has a countertenor timbre to her voice but she is not, however, always ideally steady, as her vibrato sometimes turns towards a tremolo, and in her argument with Seneca, she simply sounds querulous with too much of a harsh, edgy, “old lady” sound. That aristocratic mezzo Bernarda Fink is a restrained, warm-voiced Arnalta, which makes a change from the usual pantomime dame, but she is not lacking in expressiveness. Countertenor Roberto Balconi is a similarly understated Nurse, singing the role smoothly rather than caricaturing it. Anne Sofie von Otter contributes the most “operatic” of the performances; I sometimes find her to be a cool artist but here she throws herself aptly into her characterisation of the histrionic Ottavia and her voice is in prime condition. I think she is the best thing here and her farewell to Rome is a masterpiece of singing – which is interesting, as I have read a review elsewhere asserting that von Otter’s extrovert manner is a blot on the set. Francesco Ellero d'Artegna as Seneca is competent. His bass has the range but not the tonal allure of the best exponents of the role and his demeanour is rather dull and lugubrious – which is, I suppose, consistent with his personality but vocally not very interesting. Constanze Backes as the Page tries too hard and sounds vocally squeaky and over-parted. The ensemble set pieces such as “Non morir, Seneca” and the concluding chorus “A te, sovrana augusta” are tame and underwhelming. Smaller roles are well sung by unidentified singers who show considerable facility with coloratura.

The sound is very good; balances are perfect and there is virtually no indication that this is a live performance beyond the occasional bit of thumping footfall.

Ultimately, despite its undoubted success in certain departments, such as von Otter’s Ottavia and the fine continuo playing, this recording is for me rather less than the sum of its parts and thus unmemorable compared with more consistent and distinctive versions.

Ivor Bolton – 1997 (live, digital) Farao
Orchestra - Bayerische Staatsoper
La Fortuna - Silvia Fichtl
La Virtů - Jennifer Trost
Poppea - Anna Caterina Antonacci
Nerone - David Daniels
Ottavia - Nadja Michael
Ottone - Axel Köhler
Seneca - Kurt Moll
Drusilla - Dorothea Röschmann
Nutrice - Marita Knobels
Arnalta - Dominique Visse
Lucano - Claes H. Ahnsjö
Pallade - Jennifer Trost
Valletto - Christian Baumgärtel
Damigella - Caroline Maria Petrig
Amore - Klaus von Gleissenthal
Liberto - Hans Jörg Mammel
Littore - Gerhard Auer
Primo soldato - Hans Jörg Mammel

This 1997 stage performance has a lot going for it in terms of both in terms of singing and editorial decisions but upon reacquaintance with it for this survey, I found the cavernous acoustic of the Prinzregententheater and the attendant, extraneous noises inherent in a live recording to be distinct disadvantages compared with studio recordings. However, an echo effect from the spacious acoustic helps recreate a theatrical atmosphere and for the most part the singers are on mike. Bolton's decision to use a tiny band of only five string players and six continuo instruments (including two guitars) is probably aesthetically and certainly historically sounder than Harnoncourt's entertaining arrangements which, for some tastes, are somewhat over-elaborated. Unfortunately, proceedings both begin and end badly with a singer, as Fortune and Venus, whose vibrato you could drive a truck through; I could also do without Dominique Visse's campy, squalling drag act as the nurse, Arnalta, although he was presumably directed to overact and milk any potential comedy. Some of her music lies too low for comfort for the alto who sings Octavia's nurse, but in any case, hers is a Marcellina "old bag" type of role; otherwise, the voices here are for the most part superlative. Contrary to a previous reviewer, I found the Tölzer choirboy who sings Cupid to be first rate, singing very strongly and purely in first rate Italian.

Countertenor Axel Köhler has plenty of bottom to his voice where others of his ilk fade and sounds considerably better here than he did for René Jacobs. There are also some excellent tenors on show, including the better known Claes H. Ahnsjö, who combines magically with David Daniels in their duet celebrating jointly the death of Seneca and the beauty of Poppea. Amongst the starry cast is a young Dorothea Röschmann, who sings divinely and does much to bring alive the character of Drusilla. Nadja Michael, still in her mezzo phase, brings great feeling to her recitativo, especially the final "Addio, Roma". A huge bonus is the presence of the great bass Kurt Moll, bringing enormous beauty and dignity to his singing of the role of Seneca, those rich organ tones descending to a low D yet also nimbly encompassing the coloratura passages. The small chorus are very satisfying, especially in the famous "Non morir, Seneca".

Of course, the core of this production resided in the partnership of Anna Caterina Antonacci and David Daniels, thereby simultaneously resolving both the musical and the dramatic problems posed by a score in which Nero was originally written for castrato. They are both in fine voice, although occasionally Antonacci’s vibrato becomes too broad and fruity for her delicate music. David Daniels astonishes with the ease and liberality of his repeated high G's, and although the oboe tones of both singers are properly differentiated, they entwine sensuously from the self-echoing refrain "Addio" in their first duet (CD 1, track 4), through to the seductive sensuality of that ethereal final duet, "Pur ti miro, pur ti godo." As I discuss in my introduction, their ecstatic love music constitutes a kind of morally ambivalent alchemy, transmuting deeply rebarbative characters into paradigms of erotic love in a manner which is still deeply perturbing today.

A full Italian/German/English libretto is provided; so too is a pretentious and convoluted pseudo-academic essay from the original programme notes rendered even more impenetrable and otiose by its translation into obscure and error-strewn English. Don't bother to try to read it. Before I embarked on this survey, I was inclined to over-rate this recording. Good as it is, it is not necessarily superior to several other contenders.

Gabriel Garrido – 2000 (live, digital) K617
Orchestra - Studio di musica antica Antonio Il Verso; Chorus - Ensemble Elyma
La Virtů - Emanuela Galli
Poppea - Guillemette Laurens
Nerone - Flavio Oliver
Ottavia - Gloria Banditelli
Ottone - Fabian Schofrin
Seneca - Ivan Garcia
Drusilla - Emanuela Galli
Nutrice - Alicia Borges
Arnalta - Martin Oro
Lucano - Mario Cecchetti
Pallade - Alicia Borges
Valletto - Elena CecchiFedi
Damigella - Adriana Fernández
Amore - Adriana Fernández
Mercurio - Philippe Jaroussky
Liberto - Furio Zanasi
Littore - Marcello Vargetto

The first surprise here is how richly and diversely this is orchestrated, given that it is relatively recent and thus supposedly informed by research into original practice which favours minimalism. I don’t mind at all – it is a lovely sound – but it is undoubtedly indifferent to the strictures of purists that only strings and small keyboard instruments should be used, and two cornets, winds and an organ are prominent. To my ears, such variety is welcome after the thin gruel of the sparest modest versions and this is in many ways closest to Harnoncourt’s two recordings above.

The whole live performance creates a larger scale impression than many; it was recorded in a spacious acoustic and the voices, too, are of good size – and indeed of better quality than is too often the case among those more recent accounts. This is immediately apparent from the singing of the three artist who are the arguing goddesses in the Prologue. The next voice we hear is the countertenor of Fabian Schofrin ornamenting neatly and producing smooth, even tone without any “drop-outs”; he is most expressive and able to sing softly, too. We then hear two full-voiced singers as the pair of sentry guards, too and after them the next pleasant surprise comes with the entrance of our eponymous social climber and the loony Emperor: Guillemette Laurens’s sultry soprano is nicely differentiated from Flavio Oliver’s high-centred countertenor, which is elegant, suitably petulant and of the Philippe Jaroussky school with a pure upper extension (Jaroussky himself is still singing the minor role of Mercury here). Darker, flutier countertenor Martin Oro makes a neat, credible job of Arnalta, without any undue histrionics or camping it up – and the crucial “Adagiati, Poppea” is tenderly sung. The ear-balm continues with Gloria Banditelli’s Ottavia whose mezzo-soprano has a mellow, ductile sound. By this time, having heard all the major voices on first exposure, the cynical listener might be steeling him or herself for the disappointment of an inadequate Seneca. It must be said that Ivan Garcia’s bass is nothing special; he doesn’t have a low C and he fakes the coloratura runs but he has a pleasant timbre, is well in (pompous) character and doesn’t let the side down. Smaller roles, such as the Page, range from the very good to the inoffensive – which often is more than can be said for recordings which recycle substandard singers in the comprimario parts.

The pacing is sprightly enough where required – a welcome feature after some of the testudinal tempi thought appropriate by conductors - but this is a long, ultra-complete version and I advise listening in sittings. Overall timings are similar to Vartolo’s but somehow it doesn’t drag like his account (see next below) and, like Bolton’s live recording, it avoids the cramped feeling Curtis generates, for example. This easily leaps to the top of the list of recommendable modern versions.

Sergio Vartolo – 2004 (live? - digital) Brilliant
Orchestra - Instrumentalists
La Fortuna - Angela Bucci
La Virtů - Lia Serafini
Poppea - Patrizia Bicciré
Nerone - Liliana Rugiero (Acts 1 & 3), Gianpaolo Fagotto (Act 2)
Ottavia - Angela Bucci
Ottone - William Matteuzzi
Seneca - Raffaelle Costantini
Drusilla - Lia Serafini
Nutrice - Alessandra Vavasori
Arnalta - Gabriella Martellacci
Lucano - Makoto Sakurada
Pallade - Lia Serafini
Valletto - Ilaria Zanetti
Damigella - Lia Serafini
Amore - Ilaria Zanetti
Mercurio - Walter Testolin
Liberto - Makoto Sakurada
Littore - Walter Testolin
Primo soldato - Makoto Sakurada
Secondo soldato - Gianpaolo Fagotto

Super-complete and directed very slowly from the harpsichord by Sergio Vartolo, this purportedly live performance comes in at nearly four hours and twenty minutes, which is heavy going even for the devotee of Baroque opera. There are times when proceedings threaten to grind to a halt, such as in the lovers’ prolonged and repeated “Addios” in Act 1 Scene 3 and at times the singers sound as if they are sleep-walking. Another oddity is in the casting of Nerone: a soprano sings the role in Acts I and III but in Act II a pleasant tenor does so, supposedly allowing for the differing vocal requirements of that middle Act; for example, it is asserted in the notes that a male voice for Nero better matches that of Lucano in their drinking song. However, Vartolo accepts that "a staged performance would almost certainly require a different approach" and the switch is certainly rather jarring from a dramatic point of view even if musically it might have its advantages. There is otherwise an additional inconsistency in the mix of voices here; a lot of them double up, which is true to historical practice and not necessarily a bad thing unless they are not attractive and, as I say above, while I don’t mind too much when male, lower register voices are cast in the masculine roles, I admit an aversion to William Matteuzzi’s weedy, mixed-falsetto crooning. His tenor is not properly registered and produced, but his constantly resorting to his upper register almost equates to the sound of a countertenor and, despite being monotonous, suits Monteverdi more than it does Puccini. Nonetheless, I am ready to scream by the time we come to the end of Ottone’s first, long declamation, let alone accompany him throughout a long opera.

A final peculiarity is the inclusion of wind and brass instruments which attracts the disapproval of modern musicologists but the result falls gratefully on the ear – at least, on mine. The preponderance in the continuo of plucked string instruments – especially the harpsichord topped off by recorders and the like makes for a varied, atmospheric accompaniment. Another bonus is the lovely singing of Patrizia Bicciré as Poppea. Her light, bright but sensuous voice is well contrasted with the Nero of Liliana Rugiero but as so often seems to happen in this pairing, while Rugiero’s darker, more mezzo-ish timbre is right for the role, she also has an incipient tremolo which I find irritating because it is…well, tremulous and spoils the line. Being sometimes wearied by the antics of charcter tenors as Arnalta, I rather like the warm – if admittedly lugubrious, especially at Vartolo’s speeds – contralto of Gabriella Martellacci, although her warnings sound more like Erda. Angela Bucci is similarly trenchant and mournful but, once again, she evinces the same vocal flaw of a tremolo which obtrudes at the end of every loud and/or sustained note. When did this fault become acceptable to conservatories? The Nurse is unsteady and sounds as though she is labouring to sing in an undeveloped lower register. Raffaele Costantini is crisper-toned and more resonant than he is Cavena five years later (see below) but a bass is particularly hampered by slow speeds and makes Seneca even more of a dull pedant than ever.

I could go on but I think I have made my views clear enough.

I have read elsewhere that this is a live recording but there is absolutely no audience noise and the acoustic and balance sound like the product of a studio. We are told that this was “Recorded at Auditorium of Pigna, Corsica, during a residence December 2004” and I’m not sure what that means – was everyone on a course or on holiday and recorded this while they were there?

This is available in a bargain edition on four CDs on the Brilliant label. The sound is excellent, the notes are copious and a libretto and English translation are included. If you can get along with the funereal tempi, some poor singing and the double casting of Nero better than I, you might consider it, as it is so cheap, but it’s not for me and I suggest that you can do better and wonder why anyone would want a draggy Poppea which competes in length with Götterdämmerung.

Claudio Cavena – 2009 (studio, digital) Glossa
Orchestra - La Venexiana
La Fortuna - Pamela Lucciarini
La Virtů - Francesca Cassinari
Poppea - Emanuela Galli
Nerone - Roberta Mameli
Ottavia - Xenia Meijer
Ottone - Jose Maria Lo Monaco
Seneca - Raffaele Costantini
Drusilla - Francesca Cassinari
Nutrice - Makoto Sakurada
Arnalta - Ian Honeyman
Lucano – Mario Cecchetti
Pallade - Romina Tomasoni
Valletto - Alena Dantcheva
Damigella - Pamela Lucciarini
Amore - Alena Dantcheva
Mercurio - Andrea Favari
Liberto - Giovanni Caccamo
Littore - Andrea Favari
Primo soldato - Mario Cecchetti
Secondo soldato - Giovanni Caccamo

Cavina based this performance on the Naples version, interposing some sinfonias written by Cavalli to cover scene changes. The other main difference between this and the Venice versions is that in Act 1, Scene 11, Ottone’s music is written in a key remote from the ritornello and Poppea’s music, whereas a note in the Venice edition in Cavalli’s hand instructs performers to transpose Ottone’s verses to conform to the prevailing tonality. In other words, this is yet another example of a more conservative composer not trusting the original intention of another and “correcting” it but clearly Monteverdi wanted to reinforce musically the gulf between Ottone and Poppea. All very interesting, but hardly of crucial importance, I suppose.

Instrumentally, this latest studio recording is rhythmically free and flexible with a twanging attack on phrases and a noticeable bias towards giving the plucked instrument greater prominence over the keyboards. This results in a very raw, immediate sound which is by no means unattractive but very assertive and sometimes even aggressive. Better that lively, improvisational approach, however, than a dry, academic delivery. However, I must note one or two peculiarities: the speed for the ensemble where Seneca’s friends appeal to him not to commit suicide is absurdly fast, reducing it to gabble, lacking gravitas, and et the other extreme, the very slow tempo and ponderous strumming accompanying the exquisite final love duet reduce it to sounding like an incongruously modern, sentimental ballad from two pop singers – it really is most bizarre and unsettling.

The singing itself is extreme in its qualitative range, from the dire to the excellent. Emanuela Galli and Roberta Mameli make a lovely pair of lovers. Galli reprises the Poppea she sang for Garrido a decade earlier; she has a silky, seductive, slightly husky tone which is very alluring and contrasts well with Mameli’s cleaner, rounder sound with its flickering vibrato, giving it a boyish feeling. Another attractive singer is Francesca Cassinari, who, as Drusilla, has a pure, bright soprano and real facility with the coloratura.

At the other end of the spectrum, others have praised Ian Honeyman’s campy tenor Arnalta but I find it unlistenable: not so much “acted” as “over-acted”, relentlessly hectoring and overdone with a pronounced vibrato and much groaning and shouting, with too little concession to portraying an older woman. I find that he destroys Arnalta’s music, making a huge blot on the set – especially when I think back to how Oralia Domínguez sings it. Interestingly, he first recorded this role a quarter of a century earlier for Malgoire when there was no hint of the kind of shtick he misapplies here.

Xenia Meijer as Ottavia is awful, too; she joins Honeyman in sacrificing the line and lyricism of her music to excessive expressivity, with too much breathy howling, swooping and curdled tone. She could take a lesson from Janet Baker on how to convey passion without yowling. Jose Maria Lo Monaco is a warm, expressive, impassioned Ottone with, appropriately, something of the countertenor timbre to her tone, but her lack of steadiness and wobbling vibrato cause issues with pitch. Raffaele Costantini as Seneca is woolly and intonationally insecure; comparison with singers like Kurt Moll and Gregory Reinhart makes for a painful contrast. As for Vartolo above, Makoto Sakurada as the Nurse is strangulated (baroque singers do the rounds singing the same role for various conductors, which is not always an advantage). Alena Dantcheva sings prettily but I prefer a treble Amore to provide more character and tonal variety, given the prevalence of upper-register voices.

The sound is open and resonant with considerable reverberance. This is an expensive set and has too many flaws and oddities to be a first recommendation, despite the delight furnished by the two principal singers.

All the recordings here are stereo or digital with the exception of the live La Scala performance - which I want if for no other reason than the exceptional beauty of Oralia Domínguez’ Arnalta, regardless of its other merits and demerits – but that cannot possibly be a prime recommendation, just a supplement for the buff like me.

It is still the case that too many recordings of baroque opera employ small, mediocre voices of no great distinction, and while there has been a proliferation of countertenors in the last generation, not all, by any means have powerful voices with sufficiently developed registers to carry, and in an opera which fields four or more singers of that voice-type, it matters that they should be individual, round and pure of tone and audible throughout their range; a cast of small, bland voices piping away ineffectively offers little pleasure and looking back over this survey, I see that I have been ruder than usual about a fair amount of poor singing evincing egregious, technical flaws. Especially common is the number of instances when a tremolo disfigures a voice and for some reason that is more often encountered among baroque singers. As for a “completely authentic” recommendation, I don’t know what that is and I’m not sure anyone else does, either. For all that I recognise how more recent scholarship has uncovered more of Monteverdi’s original intent, it seems to me that questions of authenticity should take a back seat to aesthetic excellence and dramatic impact, and in any case it is still unclear whether - or to what degree - Monteverdi would have expected or approved of the elaboration of his score, so enjoyment remains my main criterion regardless of purist considerations, and my ultimate top choice is the earlier Harnoncourt set. Regarding the secondary recommendation of Garrido, it makes a welcome change to be able to endorse a relatively modern and mostly authentic recording, as so often in my surveys, I find myself delving back decades into the discography for the best options.

Inauthentic: Franci 1966 (cut); Pritchard 1964 (cut)
Authentic – but with a tenor Nero: Malgoire 1986 (complete); Harnoncourt 1978 (heavily cut)
(More or less) authentic: Harnoncourt 1974* (complete); Garrido 2000 (complete)

First choice*

Ralph Moore

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