Performers: Trudeliese Schmidt, Eric Tappy, Rachel Yakar, Werner Hollweg, Simon Estes, Matti Salminen, Philippe Huttenlocher, Dietz Turban, Werner Gröschel, et al.
Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Das Monteverdi-Ensemble des Opernhauses Zürich.
Staged, directed, and designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
Studio: Deutsche Grammophon (5 DVDs)
Video: 4:3, Color
Audio: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1
Length: 6 hours, 56 min.
It’s not often that staging, casting, set design, music, acting, and vocal interpretation blend to form a careful and inspired whole. I can think of only a few: the Chereau/Boulez Ring Cycle of the early Eighties, the Burton/Chappell Boris Godunov of 1990, possibly Zeffirelli’s 1986 Otello (despite his omissions). But these productions of Monteverdi’s three extant operas are (so far) the finest I’ve ever seen, possibly of any opera. The minute the curtains rise in these operas and the music pours forth, you sense you’re in for something special. The costuming and props of L’Orfeo, for example, is bizarre enough to have been spawned by a twisted medieval imagination. Charon ferries souls across the River Styx using an oar, the top of which is a human femur. Fortune wears two female breast-plates: that of a voluptuous young woman in the front and a drooping hag in the back.
This 1607 opera, completed a few months after Shakespeare’s King Lear, blends contemporary polyphony with skillfully woven madrigal and motet forms, creating an entirely new genre. True, the characters are a tad wooden, symbolizing virtues and foibles rather than being genuine flesh and blood. For truly human characters you have to watch Monteverdi’s last opera, L’Incoronazione di Poppea. This latter masterpiece shows how far the composer progressed in the 46-year interim. In this opera, whose remarkable music has been revised and toyed over many times between 1908 and 1990, Nero and his mistress Poppea conduct their love affair with a gleeful abandon tempered with ruthlessness. Nearly every scene has stunning music, expert arias and recitatives overflowing in charming duets — not just by the principals, but by everyone.
Throughout this series, Ponnelle and Harnoncourt give equal consideration to major and minor characters, casting both with excellent actor-singers. In fact, some majors in one opera play minors in another: like Philippe Huttenlocher, who performs both as Orfeo and as a nephew of Seneca in Poppea. The scene between Melanto, Penelope’s spunky maid in Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, and her lover Eurimaco is one of the more erotic I’ve seen in opera, including the seduction interlude in 1.iii of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. At one point Eurimaco is singing her a melisma, she strokes his throat and his voice wavers as if he’s being tickled. I’ve never seen that before. The humor in the final two operas is both broadly Shakespearean (the guards muttering about Nero’s trysts) and satiric. In Poppea’s last scene, as the lady is being crowned and feted by her king, the courtiers artfully sing her praises while simultaneously laughing at her.
The newly re-engineered 5.l sound is impressive, breathtaking at times – although the video isn’t completely shorn of motes. (Two of the three opera productions had originally appeared in North America on laserdisc.) The new sound mix is particularly evident in the hall-filling sound of choral scenes in Orfeo and Poppea. The solo feats of voice and gesture may also leave you panting for more. Penelope’s first yearning aria in Il Ritorno, sung by the lovely and redoubtable Trudeliese Schmidt (who’s in all three operas), is unforgettable. What am I saying? The whole series is. Get this boxed set. For almost seven hours, you will be enthralled and not disappointed.
— Peter Bates