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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL OPERA REVIEW
Monteverdi, L’Incoronazione di Poppea: Soloists, Les Arts Florissants Conductor: William Christie. Teatro Real de Madrid. 18. 5.2010. (JMI)
New production Teatro Real in coproduction with Venice’s Teatro de la Fenice.
Direction: Pier Luigi Pizzi.
Sets and Costumes: Pier Luigi Pizzi.
Lighting: Sergio Rossi.
Poppea: Danielle De Niese.
Nerone: Philippe Jaroussky.
Ottavia: Anna Bonitatibus.
Ottone: Max Emanuel Cencic.
Drusilla: Ana Quintans.
Seneca: Antonio Abete.
Nutrice: José Lemos.
Arnalta: Robert Burt.
Fortuna/Pallade/Venere: Claire Debono.
Virtú/Damigella: Katherine Watson.
Amore: Hanna Bayodi-Hirt.
Valletto: Suzana Ograjensek.
Lucano: Mathias Vidal.
Liberto/Tribuno: Andreas Wolf.
Mercurio/Tribuno: Damian Whiteley.
Production Picture © Javier del Real
The Monteverdi trilogy, one of the recent star projects at Madrid’s Teatro Real, culminates with these performances of Poppea. The project has combined the talents of William Christie and director Pier Luigi Pizzi to provide what is surely one of the best possible displays of Monteverdi operas anywhere in the world.
In the previous two productions there had been no need to make major decisions to the music but things L'Incoronazione di Poppea, as the program explains, comes in two versions, the original from Venice and a later one from Naples, which differ considerably. The usual solution has been to present a mixture of both but since the Teatro Real’s is a co-production with La Fenice, it was a natural enough choice to opt for the Venice version, in a new edition by Jonathan Cable.
As in previous his earlier Monteverdi operas, Pier Luigi Pizzi presented a new production, one that is attractive from an aesthetic perspective, but it is somewhat static and unimaginative in purely theatrical terms. The sets consist of a rotating centre stage showing Nero's Palace, and both Seneca’s and Poppea’s mansions. Both sides of the stage - and even its roof - have mirrors, reflecting the sets, producing many interesting effects. The costumes are also attractive, as always with Pizzi, but are also rather drab in choices of colour, mostly white, black, grey or fawn except for Drusilla’s cloak and for the opera’s final scene. Where Pizzi is less convincing is with pure stage direction which comes out as too static for much of the time although he has a group of excellent actors under his command, which helps to mitigate the sense of lack of life on stage. The way Pizzi handled the scene between Nero and Lucano was slightly strange, making it a gay love duet while in the libretto the singers refer to Poppea’s charms rather than their own.
William Christie and Les Arts Florissants were again the stars of this opera, as also was the case with L'Orfeo and Il Ritorno d'Ulisse. The quality of the group of17 musicians (16 plus Christie to the harpsichord) is always impressive but I should like to highlight the excellent work continuo playing, headed by William Christie himself, on harpsichord, organ and regal. Jonathan Cable – who edited the score for the production – also played the continuo double bass. It is hard to think of a better choice than Mr Christie and Les Arts Florissants for a Monteverdi trilogy.
Poppea was sung by soprano Danielle De Niese, who providing a very convincing interpretation of the ambitious Empress. Her Poppea would be difficult for anyone resist to, such is the sensuality emanating from her portrayal. Vocally, her singing is not quite completely outstanding, but it works out very well, giving much expressive sense to the recitatives.
To cast a countertenor as Nero is a rather questionable decision. Having in the past the experienced the role sung by both a mezzo soprano and a tenor, personally, I preferred the ‘trouser role’ option’ but this time decision the French Philippe Jaroussky sang it, preserving - in a sense - the historical line back to the original use of a soprano castrato. His stage presentation, as well as his vocal performance, were both wholly positive and he flew high in both respects. A slightly different issue - and purely a matter of personal preference which many people would certainly not share - is that I find some elements in his voice slightly unattractive, particularly some aspects of his upper register. As I say though, this is entirely a question of personal taste.
The Italian mezzo soprano Anna Bonitatibus made a splendid Ottavia with a powerful and very expressive voice perfectly suited to the opera’s style. She was excellent and very moving in both "Addio, Roma", and in "Disprezzata Regina".
The role of Ottone also provides alternative for vocal casting, although the common practice is to use a countertenor in line with the original castrato mezzo soprano. This was the Teatro Real’s choice and they commissioned the Croatian countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic for the role of the future Roman Emperor. I found him much improved over his previous performances in this same role: the voice is not large, but it is much more pleasant than the sound from some other countertenors who sing Ottone.
A very positive impression was left by the Portuguese soprano Anne Quintans who has both a beautiful voice and appearance. Her Drusilla was excellent. The British tenor Robert Burt did not convince me as Arnalta. Antonio Abete made a good Seneca, and Brazilian countertenor José Lemos was an acceptable interpreter of la Nutrice. The young soprano Suzana Ograjensek was also good as Valletto, although since this character also allows various vocal choices, I slightly prefer a pleasant tenor, as provided at Barcelona’s Liceu last year. The trio of goddesses was well covered, Claire Debono sang the part of Fortuna in the Prologue, but was at her best as Pallade announcing his impending death to Seneca. Katherine Watson left a strong impression too , as did Hanna Bayodi- Hirt.
There was a full house, the usual situation in Madrid, with a few emptied seats after the break. At the final bows, in addition to William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, who were justly acclaimed, there were sonorous cheers for Jaroussky, Bonitatibus and de Niese - in that order, so far as I could gauge.
José M Irurzun