DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

MONTEVERDI: L’incoronatione di Poppea, Blu-ray (2011)

The production seems to have everything but subtlety, but in its way it is effective and compelling.

Published on April 25, 2012

MONTEVERDI: L’incoronatione di Poppea (complete opera), Blu-ray (2011)

Orchestra of the Norwegian National Opera/ Alessandro De Marchi
Cast: Brigitte Poppea – Brigitte Christensen / Nerone – Jacek Laszczkowski / Ottone – Tim Mead / Virtú & Drusilla – Marita Sølberg / Ottavia  –  Patricia Bardon / Amore  – Amelie Aldenheim / Fortuna – Ina Kringlebotn / Nutrice – Tone Kruse / Seneca – Giovanni Battista Parodi
Studio: EuroArts 2058924 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 1080i Full HD 16:9
Audio: PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English/Italian/German/French/Japanese/Norwegian
Length: 180 minutes 
Rating: ***1/2

Scholars aren’t certain that L’incoronatione di Poppea is altogether, or even at all, the work of Monteverdi. To begin with, the original score for the Venice premiere of 1643 does not exist. Instead, it has come down to us through two copies from the 1650s. Apparently, neither score nor any other contemporary document mentions Monteverdi. Besides this, Monteverdi would have been seventy-six at the time of the opera’s creation and in declining health; in fact, he died in November of that year. The feat of turning out an opera of such length and musical distinction seems nearly impossible under the circumstances, and indeed it is conjectured that Monteverdi had a hand in the opera but also substantial help from one or more colleagues—perhaps a “studio” of apprentice composers in the fashion of Renaissance masters and their painterly little helpers.

Whatever the provenance of the opera, it is groundbreaking in its portrayal of actual historical figures rather than mythical ones and also in its moral obliquity, for which we can credit librettist Francesco Busenello. It’s probably hard not to be morally oblique when celebrating the nuptials of so depraved a guy as the Emperor Nero and the crowning of his new consort, the unscrupulous Poppea. Along the way, the relative innocents of the story—Poppea’s former lover, Ottone; Empress Ottavia; the patrician Drussilla; and Nerone’s tutor, the noble Seneca—all end up damaged or destroyed.

Following the Aristotelian concept of unity of time in drama, Busenello telescopes a great deal of action into the space of twenty-four hours. Hence, poor old Seneca the Younger (young at this point only by way of epithet), who in actuality was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero, is in the opera merely accused by Poppea of disloyalty. Dramatically, this kills two birds with one stone, suggesting Poppea’s unscrupulous thirst for fame and fortune and the grounds for Seneca’s demise: as in history, Nerone demands Seneca’s suicide, and Seneca complies by slitting his wrists in the bath. Nasty stuff.

And nastily portrayed in this production of L’incoronatione. As David Patmore writes in his brief but efficient notes, “The characters and their actions are highly problematic, and the immediate dramatic message of the opera is at best ambiguous and at worst perverted. Many commentators have noted the work’s extraordinary glorification of lust and ambition. All these aspects are presented in the strongest possible light by this new production from Norway.” That last is something of an understatement. In fact, the only thing this production lacks is subtlety. It has enough of lust, ambition, and blood. Buckets of the stuff. By the end of the opera, the white concave space on which the action takes place is festooned with streamers of blood, and Poppea’s gown is hemmed in blood. In addition, the sets and costumes are mostly rendered in shades of black and white, while the whole is filmed in such a way that most of the color is leached out of the visuals—with the exception of that ever-accumulating red.

Since we all know many of the low points of Nero’s brief and bloody career, sticking our noses in it seems unnecessary, and I vote for a bit more subtlety. But if you’re going to go for the Grand-Guignol treatment, you might as well do it to the hilt, and thus the current production is a success, given its aims. Male soprano Jacek Laszczkowski, who plays Nerone, is the pop-eyed essence of the power-mad tyrant; he both sings and acts up a storm in the role. Amore, ironic guardian angel of the lovers Poppea and Nerone, is a frightening admixture of the innocent and the demonic. Diminutive soprano Amelie Aldenheim wears silk pajamas and holds a teddy bear throughout the opera, but her facial features, with some help from lighting and makeup, has the aspect of a death’s head, with a wide, sadistic grin.

Some of the action borders on the slapstick, which isn’t really amiss given the over-the-top nature of the production. Giovanni Battista Parodi’s Seneca, whose infirmity is suggested by walking with the aid of a pair of canes, undergoes the indignity of having his supports kicked out from under him and a resultant pratfall. On the other hand, some of the characters escape with most of their dignity intact. Patricia Bardon is a stately and tragic Ottavia, while Tim Mead and Marita Sølberg are attractive and sympathetic as the new pair of lovers, Ottone and Drusilla.

Given what I’ve said so far, the one odd bit of casting would seem to be Brigitte Christensen as Poppea. Her ample figure looks just a bit incongruous beside the rail-thin Jacek Laszczkowski. But more, on occasion her features are benign to the point of girl-next-door sweetness, which also doesn’t quite jibe. Danielle de Niese, on a rival version of the opera from Glyndebourne (on Decca), seems to capture the essence of Poppea more effectively, having a kittenish seductiveness that can easily turn into something much more sinister. In fact, if you want a more subtle and modulated production of the opera, the Decca version is a very good choice—though as fine as her singing and acting is, it’s hard for me to fully accept tow-headed soprano Alice Coote as Nero.

But back to the current production. The singing of the principals and the majority of the minor players is mostly very good although Laszczkowski’s accurate but piercing soprano is probably an acquired taste. Both countertenor Tim Mead and soprano Ina Kringlebotn as Dame Fortune use just a bit too much vibrato to portray their different mental states—grief and egotistical self-satisfaction respectively. But Patricia Bardon and the sepulchrally deep-voiced Giovanni Battista Parodi bring distinguished vocalizations to their roles. And Tone Kruse’s Nutrice is both well sung and quite amusing.

As to the orchestral accompaniment, the manuscript copies from the 1650s contain three or four instrumental lines plus the continuo part, so to bring the score to the stage, additional instrumentation is needed. I find Alessandro De Marchi’s realization effective, as is his conducting and the playing of a select group from the Norwegian National Opera. (However, why the opera is recorded in stereo only instead of lossless surround sound escapes me.) So musically at least, this production is mostly satisfying. Reactions to the spare scenery and buckets-of-blood production values will be up to individual tastes, of course. For me, this is not a first choice but when I’m in the mood, an interesting alternative.

—Lee Passarella

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