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Briefly Noted: Christie's latest, best "Poppea" (CD of the Month)

available at Amazon
Monteverdi, L'incoronazione di Poppea, S. Yoncheva, K. Lindsey, S. d’Oustrac, C. Vistoli, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie

(released on August 30, 2019)
Harmonia Mundi HAF8902622.24 | 186'38"
Claudio Monteverdi is something of an obsession of mine, particularly his final opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea. It is a work under review here in myriad versions, somehow never tiresome to these ears. William Christie and his ensemble Les Arts Florissants have performed and recorded the work before, not among my favorite interpretations. This live recording, made at the Salzburg Festival in 2018, finally captures the American conductor's best work on this seminal piece. Its release coincides with the ensemble's 40th anniversary celebrations.

Christie has assembled a cast this time that is not merely optimal for each role but that blends together in a pleasing whole. As the amoral principal characters, Poppea and Nerone, soprano Sonya Yoncheva and mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey have a collective vocal luster that seduces, especially in the famous duet "Pur ti miro" at the opera's conclusion. Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac makes a biting Ottavia, with baritone Renato Dolcini as a resonant, moralizing Seneca.

In a booklet interview, Christie explains why he does not always want to use countertenors in castrato roles, although he has found an alluring examplar of this voice type in Carlo Vistoli for his Ottone. The instrumental component, reduced to minimal forces, turns on a dime to move with the singers, with Christie leading from the harpsichord rather than conducting. Operas in this period rely so heavily on recitative that it can be quite boring if not performed with instrumental variety and lively unpredictability. For example, in the third scene of the first act, when Poppea and Nero waken after a night of love-making, Yoncheva's handling of the lines beginning "Signor, deh, non partire" purrs with sleepy desire.

Besides the rich continuo section, pleasing and virtuosic solos come from a few instruments added to the texture, especially Sébastien Marq on recorder and crisp, focused cornetto playing by Jean-Pierre Canihac and Marie Garnier-Marzullo. While occasional misalignments are to be expected in a live recording, especially in this chamber-like arrangement without a conductor, the verve of live performance makes up for the occasional problem. Although the pictures of the production by Jan Lauwers are beautiful, it was clearly not for everyone.

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