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Poppea: 'Di questo seno i pomi?'

available at Amazon
C. Monteverdi, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, D. de Niese, P. Jaroussky, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(released on April 3, 2012)
Virgin 07095191 | 180'

available at Amazon
E. Rosand, Monteverdi's Last Operas: A Venetian Trilogy
Claudio Monteverdi is the father of opera, and L'Incoronazione di Poppea, his final opera, is a twilight masterpiece, the Magic Flute, the Falstaff, the Parsifal of the early Baroque period. The problem is that, while no one doubts the ingenuity and dramatic force of this opera, it may not be by Monteverdi at all. As Ellen Rosand has written in her masterful survey of Monteverdi's Venetian operas, the source situation for Poppea is by far the most complicated of any Venetian opera of the period -- two distinct and rather different manuscripts, multiple versions of the libretto. The libretto's approach to characterization, its moral ambiguity, strikes us now as particularly modern, and the proliferation of productions and recordings of the opera in recent years (René Jacobs, Emmanuelle Haïm, William Christie at the Opéra de Lyon, David Alden, to name just a few) has only amplified the study of the work. As Rosand puts it, "no modern performance could be attempted without coming to grips with the numerous variant readings" of the score.

A number of new recordings of Poppea have crossed my desk recently, the first to consider being this DVD of a staging by Pier Luigi Pizzi, recorded at Madrid's Teatro Real. It is another production featuring Les Arts Florissants and William Christie in the pit, which means that the playing and the scholarly consideration given to the score are a known quantity (here using a new edition of the Venetian version of the opera, edited by Jonathan Cable, who plays violone in christie's continuo group). Christie returned again to Danielle de Niese for the title role, after grooming her for the role in his production in Lyon in 2005, and for once Christie's taste in voices seems way off base. On one hand de Niese, a beautiful woman, is an obvious choice to play Poppea -- according to Tacitus, one of the most beautiful women of her age but also one who would focus her lust on whatever object was most to her advantage. Poppea has to seduce the viewer, yes, but more importantly she has to seduce the listener, and de Niese's voice, if not her looks, falls short -- too many mannerisms (straight tone popping into vibrato, as if she were singing Whitney Houston), questionable Italian pronunciation, and shallowness of tone. De Niese also starred as Poppea at Glyndebourne, where she is now mistress of the house, a performance released on DVD by Decca a couple of years ago (with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting a production by Robert Carsen) and with the same issues.

There are other problems, too, beginning with the rest of the casting, a group of high-profile names that do not really mesh with one another, beginning with the boyish Nerone of countertenor Philippe Jaroussky (in Lyon, Christie cast Nerone as a tenor rather than a countertenor), who strikes no sparks with de Niese. This is at least partially due to the ridiculous costuming and makeup (design all credited to Pizzi) that in the first act makes him look like a Goth vampire-gorilla, but here Nerone's most sultry duet is not with Poppea but in the little scene with Lucano in the second act, where Nero is supposed to be rhapsodizing in poetry with his court poet (Lucan) -- about Poppea -- interpreted here as its own sort of love scene, with the two men singing the words to one another. Bass Antonio Abete, who has an odd way of singing out of one corner of his mouth, is a sententious Seneca, while the Ottone of Max Emanuel Cencic and the Ottavia of Anna Bonitatibus are sharp-edged and sometimes shrill, musically satisfying in a way but not creating much sympathy for either character. In the uneven supporting cast (so many bit parts!), countertenor José Lemos has a charming turn in en travesti role of the Nurse (matched by the less vocally attractive but high-kitsch Arnalta of Robert Burt, in a bright purple Dame Edna moment in the bizarrely timed comic scene near the end of Act III). The one standout is soprano Ana Quintans as a coquettish Drusilla, the sort of clean but potent voice that would actually make a much better Poppea. The set, a sort of Baroque version of Rome, with modernized costumes, is somber and mostly nondescript.

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