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24.10.04

Monteverdi in the House

As a Baroque specialist, I follow with great delight new productions that appear to be expanding the core repertory of opera theaters backward in time into the Baroque era. Handel and, to a lesser degree, Monteverdi are the composers who have benefitted most. I have been reading the reviews on the new production of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea led by René Jacobs, with the Concerto Vocale, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris (two pictures here). Marie-Aude Roux's review (Monteverdi et Sénèque transposés au temps de la télé-réalité, October 16) for Le Monde called it "a hip Poppea":

This Nerone like a Latino pop star, with dreadlocks, torn jeans, santiags, coke, and leg kicks à la James Brown; this new-rich Poppea, a Lolita of luxury call girl bad taste; this 1960s Seneca, wan and ridiculous; this menopausal and bourgeois Octavia; not even mentioning the transsexual nurses, somewhere between Mrs Doubtfire and Miss Fine, the CNN news report after the attempted murder of Poppea, the mafioso bodyguards, the night-club employees. In short, a very hip bunch of nothing. Should Love be no longer an "enfant de bohème" but a ghetto rapper? Does this story essentially take place below the waist? Of course! Beyond that, it transforms Monteverdi into a racy American vaudeville comedy.
She doesn't care much for the production design, by David McVicar, and her assessment of the music is not much more positive. Patrizia Ciofi (Poppea) "did not seem unforgettable" (a classic French double negative putdown). Anne Sofie von Otter (Ottavia) "seemed stripped of color and nuance." She does praise the two nurses (Tom Allen and Dominique Visse), who were "on top of their roles," and Lawrence Zazzo (Ottone), a role often reduced in modern productions but which was restored by René Jacobs. Gilles Macassar's review (Poppée de sang, October 15) for Télérama goes into the history of Monteverdi's opera to see if McVicar's production is justified:
"I cannot imitate language that is not spoken," Monteverdi complained to the librettist who had given him an allegorical poem on the south winds. "Ariadne moves listeners because she is a woman, and Orpheus because he is a man, but not a zephyr!" It was indeed creatures of flesh and blood that were confronted, in 1643, by the maestro di capella of the Basilica of San Marco, in a new libretto authored by a Venitian diplomat, L'Incoronazione di Poppea. The Roman emperor Nero pulls himself from the arms of his mistress Poppea, before having her proclaimed empress; Ottone and Ottavia, the legitimate but frustrated spouses, spout their vengeance, while the philosopher Seneca stoically opens his veins in his bath, by imperial command. A marriage of sex and blood in the shadow of the Campidoglio.
cover
Claudio Monteverdi, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Concerto Vocale, dir. René Jacobs
There is no orchestration for the opera, just a figured bass line in the manuscripts. René Jacobs has changed some of the registration of instruments he used in his recording with this group, which is more than 10 years old, fluctuating "between a sobre polychromatic continuo and larger textures."

Nicolas Blanmont's review (Le retour à Néron et Poppée, October 22) for La Libre Belgique makes note of the same oddities of the McVicar production but has a different take on the musical quality:
Bergonzi or Vickers as Nerone, Christoff or Ghiaurov as Seneca, Van Dam as Ottone, Bumbry or Lott as Poppea: many great singers have tried L'Incoronazione di Poppea, but the novelty here is that they are doing it with an original instruments group (the excellent Concerto Vocale), with a conductor experienced in this repertoire. Here, the stage is dominated by the stunning Nerone of Anna Caterina Antonacci, surrounded by the excellent Patrizia Ciofi (Poppea) and a vocally grandiose Anne Sofie Von Otter (Ottavia), even if she seems to have more difficulty fitting in with the direction. The latter two also camp it up as Fortune and Virtue in the prologue.
He calls Lawrence Zazzo "one of the best countertenors at this moment" and has good things to say about the rest of the cast. However, the Agence France-Presse review of the premiere (Un "Couronnement de Poppée" de Monteverdi canaille et contesté au TCE, October 14) said that "part of the audience booed vigorously after the premiere" because of the "production of British director David McVicar, which gave a particularly dirty taint to this opera dedicated to Love."

The last performance of Poppea was last night (October 23), but if you live in France, the opera will be broadcast on France Musiques, on November 8 at 8 pm. The production will then be mounted in the three houses that cosponsored it: the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg, the Staatsoper under den Linden in Berlin, and the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels.

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