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Harnoncourt's Vintage 'Poppea'

available at Amazon
C. Monteverdi, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, H. Donath, E. Söderström, C. Berberian, G. Luccardi, P. Langridge, Concentus Musicus Wien, N. Harnoncourt
(1974, re-released 2009)
Teldec 022924254765 | 3h35
There were some performances of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, undertaken without a scholarly consideration of the source problems and on modern instruments, before Nikolaus Harnoncourt undertook this famous version with Concentus Musicus Wien. As I wrote of this preeminent HIP conductor's Orfeo a few years ago, it is no exaggeration to attribute the beginning of the Monteverdi revival to Harnoncourt's traversal of the Monteverdi cycle in the 1970s at the Zurich Opera, in stagings by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. When he staged Poppea in Zurich, captured on DVD, Harnoncourt cut over 45 minutes of music and used a mostly different cast, but for this ground-breaking audio recording, he used his own ultra-complete edition of the score, with every scrap of recitative accounted for. For all of its monumental status in the history of the Monteverdi revival, this set -- recently re-released with the original four discs squeezed onto three, at a discounted price -- sounds ridiculously dated now. Harnoncourt responded to the absence of indications for instrumentation in a way opposite from Hickox, by over-orchestrating the score most fancifully for a vast consort of instruments that do not always sound all that good. Every time the honking shawms come out of their cage, one just cringes. The wedding cake of extraneous instruments cluttering up "Pur ti miro" at the end, like gobs of icing, ruins one of the great moments in music history.

Harnoncourt's conducting, again as much as I respect him, just seems too clunky and edge-focused by comparison to the superior recordings of the last two decades. That being said, after a few decades of performances with transpositions of Nerone and Ottone for lower male voices, Harnoncourt cast countertenor Paul Esswood as Ottone, with mixed results by today's standards. He also kept Poppea and Nerone in the same high register, pairing Helen Donath's Poppea with the late Elisabeth Söderström's Nerone, although neither is competition for some of the singers on those later recordings. The principal rewards of this recording, besides its historical importance, are the chance to hear Cathy Berberian, the soprano who was Luciano Berio's muse, sing Ottavia's A dio, Roma, and young English tenor Philip Langridge as Lucano in that duet with Söderström. Giancarlo Luccardi rumbles away as a somewhat arrogant Seneca, with the broad vibrato creating many unpleasant intonation issues. Harnoncourt, who famously used boys' voices for his Bach cantata cycle with Gustav Leonhardt, has selected a beautiful treble voice for Amore, which is one of the highlights.

Ivor Bolton (Munich)
William Christie (Madrid)
Harry Bicket and David Alden (Barcelona)
René Jacobs (Concerto Vocale)
Arleen Auger and Richard Hickox (London)

"Pur ti miro" (from L'Incoronazione di Poppea), Rachel Yakar and Eric Tappy (conducted
by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, for Zurich staging -- not the version under review)

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