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Poppea: Hickox in London

available at Amazon
C. Monteverdi, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, A. Auger, D. Jones, S. Leonard, L. Hirst, J. Bowman, City of London Baroque Sinfonia, R. Hickox

(re-released on June 5, 2012)
Virgin 5099955984454 | 3h13
In the same 90s wave of Poppea recordings with Alan Curtis and René Jacobs, was a version made by legendary conductor Richard Hickox in 1988. Just re-released last month at a budget price, this set is well worth listening to again, a good choice for someone looking for a historically informed performance that is more faithful reconstruction than recreation. Hickox went for an extremely literal interpretation of the sources, using mostly just continuo, not writing out accompagnato arrangements or adding sinfonias or ritornelli. Hickox, of course, was an extravagantly gifted conductor who brought illumination to all the music he touched, from Britten and other English composers to Handel (a beautiful Alcina, also with Arleen Auger), and although he was never known as a seicento specialist, he draws out a lithe and idiomatic performance from the City of London Baroque Sinfonia. While the measured music is kept to cello and continuo realization only, the recitativo sections feature harpsichord, chamber organ, and theorbo in alternation.

This is one of the best Poppea-Nerone pairings on disc, again cast in the best way possible, with two women. Arleen Auger, not long before her diagnosis with a fatal brain tumor, is a seraphic Poppea, a choice that helps the listener believe in the sincerity of the love she has for Nerone. Welsh mezzo-soprano Della Jones is a forceful Nerone, masculine enough in sound to play up Monteverdi's snarly characterization of Nerone as excited (really, guilty) in the confrontation with the calm, assured Seneca. (Ellen Rosand explores the composer's use of text repetition and characterization through musical style in that scene.) Jones also shows an intense lyricism in the love duets with Auger, though, making for one of the sweetest, slowest performances of "Pur ti miro" (listen below). James Bowman, always one of the most polished countertenor voices, makes a rather pretty Ottone, matched by the fine Seneca of Gregory Reinhart, with good agility and a lot of weight to the voice. The only disappointment is Linda Hurst, awfully shrill as Ottavia, perhaps Hickox's shrewish counterweight to the sweet Poppea, but with a nobly restrained "A dio, Roma" in the third act. The supporting cast shows interesting choices, too, with the pert Drusilla of Sarah Leonard, tenor Adrian Thompson convincing in Arnalta's comic scenes (if unable to give the necessary beauty to Arnalta's more tender moments), a low-set female voice for the Nutrice, and the immature hoot of a child treble as Amore.

Ivor Bolton (Munich)
William Christie (Madrid)
Harry Bicket and David Alden (Barcelona)
René Jacobs (Concerto Vocale)

Arleen Auger and Della Jones, Pur ti miro (from L'Incoronazione di Poppea)

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