MONTEVERDI: L’incoronazione di Poppea (complete opera) (2009)
Danielle De Niese (Poppea)/ Alice Coote (Nerone)/ Iestyn Davies (Ottone)/ Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Arnalta)/ Tamara Mumford (Ottavia)/ Dominique Visse (Nutrice)/ Paolo Battaglia (Seneca)/ Lucia Cirillo (Valletto)/ Marie Arnet (Drusilla)/ Glyndebourne Chorus/ Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/ Emmanuelle Haim, conductor
Produced by Toni Hajal
Director: Robert Carsen
Studio: Decca 074 3339 [Release date: 7/14/09]
Video: 16:9 color
Audio: PCM Stereo; DTS 5.0 surround (opera); Dolby stereo (bonus tracks)
Extras: "Poppea in Glyndebourne"
Length: 193 minutes (opera); 41 minutes (bonus)
The Coronation of Poppea is the last work written by the then 75-year old Claudio Monteverdi, the score of which is long lost and appears only in two copies that we have from about eight years after the premiere, each differing from the other. So there is always going to be a certain amount of musicological soothsaying involved in any production, stage or recording. Particularly irksome is the last and most famous piece, “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo” (“I gaze at you, I possess you”) sung in duet by Poppea and Nerone, the words having appeared in an opera by Benedetto Ferrari in 1641, though it is debatable whether the music is also by him or not. It doesn’t matter—that last aria is one of the glories of western music, and one cannot imagine this opera without it. This work, despite its contrived libretto (by Giovanni Francesco Busenello) where the traditionally historical attributes of the characters are revamped for the sake of dramatic action, and a seven-year history is compressed into one day’s exploit, and the fact that it disappeared for 200 years from the stage, has managed to establish itself as the defining piece of the genre, and one of the greatest ever composed.
Monteverdi was the first to tailor the musical drama to the action on the stage, and his formalized pieces defined the opera seria for years to come. His music rises above mere formality however, and gives a peerless opening into the world of true human frailty and struggles. Poppea is presented as an ambitious and somewhat lovelorn woman who seeks power in the easiest way possible, in this case to satisfy in an adulterous manner the lust of Caesar Nerone, married to the Empress Ottavia – who schemes in a fit of jealousy to have Poppea killed and wins herself exile as a result, along with Drusilla and Ottone. The irony here is that Poppea could have established herself by returning the affections of Ottone, who would later become Emperor himself, and spared herself a tragic ending (she was kicked to death while pregnant by Nerone three years later, in a fit of rage). But with the main characters out of the way Nerone is free to finally marry Poppea. The opera opens with the goddess Amore essentially chasing Fortuna and Virtu off the stage, hence setting the premise for the entire opera, that love will dominate both wealth and virtue.
Coronation is an opera about sex, power, infidelity, and betrayal. Yet Monteverdi, an intensely religious man, would never have presented us with a work solely concerned with these things in a vacuum. Though it is difficult to see any redeeming qualities in any of these characters, he does succeed in portraying their very human sensibilities in a way that every listener can appreciate—there are few emotions generated by the opera’s scenes that cannot be readily understood by all. So in a sense this first great opera is a morality play in many ways, one that no doubt resonated in the ears of his contemporary Venetians as a contrast between their “enlightened” aspirations particular to their own time in comparison with the degenerate early Roman Empire. But I think that Monteverdi was also issuing a warning to his contemporaries, that no matter the quality of the high ideals—and the Roman Empire certainly had its share—all of us remain creatures of the passions and must struggle to overcome them.
This work has been very well served on CD. One only has to mention Ivor Bolton, John Eliot Gardiner, Rene Jacobs, and Richard Hickox to name but four excellent recordings. On DVD the results have also been good—the aforementioned Jacobs, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Raymond Leppard, and Christophe Rousset have had strikes at this piece that are more than creditable. This Glyndebourne production is interesting in that it is the third in the house’s history, and the first to attempt a more “modern” production. Alice Coote’s Nerone struts around for the most part in an untied tuxedo (a head of state thing) while Danielle de Niese’s Poppea is wearing a suitably seductive negligee for most of the opera. The clothing is generally modern in a hard-to-set time period, but of all the early operas I can think of this one is least dependent on set and dress. The former is extremely sparse, allowing us to focus on the music in a rather intense fashion. This also allows the singers/actors to really ply their skills in the drama department, and most do to good effect. Besides the principals, I was quite taken with Paolo Battaglia, whose Seneca departs quite severely from the historical record as Monteverdi makes him rather weak and prissy. But Battaglia resurrects certain nobility from him, and we are genuinely pained at his unfair demise. Iestyn Davies is also very good in his imaging of Ottone, a man who narrowly escapes death and holds onto his love for Poppea.
There is a mixture of tenor and countertenor in this work, all excellently sung, though I am happy about the decision to go with a soprano for Nerone instead of a countertenor, the more usual practice these days. Emannuelle Haim conducts—if that is the word, as she also plays the continuo throughout—with a firm hand and flair and a determined imagination in her assignment of the ancient instrument forces (Monteverdi left us no clues as to orchestration) which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment executes with due brilliance. The sound is offered in wonderful DTS surround, and the bonus disc is well worth the 40-minute effort to appreciate the interviews and history of the work at Glyndebourne.
In one brilliantly effective moment after the final aria, Poppea (sung with radiance by de Niese) turns half circle to the audience, enveloped by her red coronation cape—or is it a martyr’s garment?—and looks back to the audience with a look of complete distress and horror, this after just singing one of the most famous love duets in history. It is a wonderful ending, perhaps a premonition of the tragic situation that she has now wrought for herself, one that she does not yet know but only perhaps senses, while we the audience mourn for her as we indeed know what is coming. This is a truly stunning ending, a prefect conclusion to a terrific production that is, without question, highly recommended.
— Steven Ritter