C. Monteverdi, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, M. Persson, S. Connolly, J. Domènech, F.-J. Selig, Gran Teatre del Liceu, H. Bicket
(released on May 29, 2012)
Opus Arte OA1073D | 3h03
Alden gives us one of those indelible images right at the first scene of the prologue, when the character of Fortune climbs up a staircase toward a bright red couch at center stage. The goddesses wear enormous platform shoes, with Fortune sporting a bald cap and lacy parasol and Virtue, aged, hobbling on crutches with her neck supported by a brace as if she had just been in a rear-end collision (costumes by Buki Shiff). The gods are all absurd, with costumes right out of horror and space movies: Mercurio as the Mummy with winged platform boots, exiting by falling into a hole; Pallas is like one of the sexy aliens who might have seduced Captain Kirk. For the first two acts the opera takes place in a sort of office building atrium or parking structure (sets by Paul Steinberg). In the opening scene a large street lamp protrudes from the wall, and Amore, with large bronze wings, sits atop a revolving door. This is whimsical enough for the prologue, which could take place just about anywhere, but then there is no set change for the opening of Act I, as Ottone walks in with a bouquet of flowers. He lies down on the sofa, folded out into a sort of bed, with the two guards asleep on it, and in the space of a few seconds, the staging turns mostly nonsensical.
The staging obviously limits the possible audience of this otherwise fine performance to those viewers who will not object to a little postmodern foolishness. The cast certainly ranks among the uniformly best of any recording, beginning at the top with the two women in the leads. Miah Persson, who has impressed us before in Haydn and Mozart, is a gorgeous, seductive Poppea. The visual reference seems to be Anita Ekberg in La dolce vita, at least until she appears in the seduction scene, where she becomes like a Bond villain, in a shiny black sheath with a wig of Medusa-like dreadlocks. The voice is extremely clear and beautiful, with slight issues at the top, lacking one layer of beauty. Sarah Connolly is just excellent as a sort of vampiric Nerone, her interpolated high-flying embellishments all the justification one needs for casting the part as a trouser role (rather than using a countertenor, a voice part that is really no more masculine, after all).
The rest of the cast is equally fine, either musically or dramatically or both, down to the bit parts. There is slight paleness from countertenor Jordi Domènech as Ottone, but he has a supercilious, slightly perverse quality that fits in with the admittedly odd staging. The straight-laced librarian of Drusilla (mousy-voiced Ruth Rosique), all too ready to leap into bed with Ottone (literally), is a good match. Bass Franz-Josef Selig has more than enough gravitas (down to a low C, if lacking some of the agility needed for the runs) as a sort of Communist intellectual Seneca, with nerdy spectacle-wearing students always in tow -- for their "Non morir, Seneca" trio, they walk around playing with yo-yos. Dominique Visse is still camping it up as Arnalta, here as a hilarious drag queen with crazy costumes, and doubling in the role of Ottavia's cigarette-smoking nurse, rather ludicrously in an actual nurse's uniform, complete with red crosses.
Maite Beaumont is a matronly, even shrewish Ottavia, with a lovely, plaintive, sometimes caustic wail in her voice and plenty of Italian hand-shaking. A single hanging chandelier is enough to evoke a well-appointed Roman apartment, with a stammering bellhop-costumed Valletto (William Berger), who goes a little over the top in his criticism of Seneca, only made worse by the whistling, dancing, and so on of Seneca's flunkies. This was a casting mistake when it came to that lovely duet the Valletto has with the Damigella (Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij), which was played too comically. Worse, it overlapped with the Lucano-Nerone duet, which is performed like some insane acid trip (for Guy de Mey's Lucan, think of a cross between Dom Deluise and his fey herald in Mel Brooks's History of the World). The costumes range among various time periods, with the guards in fake Roman centurion outfits, as if they are greeting tourists at the Colosseum, and others vaguely in the 1950s Italy of La dolce vita. Returning to familiar tropes, Alden likes shiny surfaces, including a polished floor and a large wall for the interplay of reflections and shadows. Most of the press photos were taken of the set for the third act, marked by its rolling floor, a chessboard twisted like a Möbius strip.
Harry Bicket leads a suave and varied performance in the pit, not with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment or the English Concert, but with the Liceu Theater's Baroque orchestra. He uses some recorders as well as strings in his orchestra, plus great variety in the continuo group, cutting about 15 minutes out of the score (including Ottone's "I miei subiti sdegni" -- Act II, scene 8).
David Alden, the director of the production under review, has taken issue with some of my assessment of his staging. Please see the comments section to read his point of view.
Ivor Bolton (Munich)
William Christie (Madrid)