Monteverdi: L’incoronozione di Poppea

Early baroque opera is always a challenge for the
producing company since the musical language, artistic conventions, and vocal
tessituras are so far removed from modern day practices.
L’incoronazione di Poppea, ups the ante by portraying the
Emperor Nero, one of history’s most barbaric tyrants, in a somewhat
positive light, which, most likely was meant to be understood by its original
audience as symbolic of the northern Italian disdain for Roman corruption and

Busenello’s libretto is largely based on Seutonius’ The
Twelve Caesars
and begins with a debate among Fortune, Virtue, and Amore
as to who is the most powerful. Director Robert Carsen stages this Prologue as
though Virtue and Fortune are actually members of the Glyndebourne Festival
audience and even has the action begin in the pit and in English before quickly
transitioning to the stage and the Italian. This works most effectively because
it reinforces the idea that the action to take place hence is an

The action of the opera basically follows the parameters of the Aristotelian
unities. Within approximately 24 hours Nero will exile his wife Ottavia, make
Poppea his new empress, condemn his disapproving tutor Seneca to death by
suicide, all the while showing kingly magnanimity to Ottone (Poppea’s
former lover and would-be assassin [at the behest of Ottavia]) and Drusilla,
the once and future lover of Ottone. By opera’s end, Amore has thoroughly
triumphed over Virtue and Fortune. This triumph, however, is short-lived, as
the historical record shows that within a year after the end of the action in
the opera Nero kicked to death the then-pregnant Poppea.

The staging of the opera in large part mitigates the dramatic difficulties
that the work presents. Taking advantage of the limited space of the
Glyndebourne stage, the sets are minimal and easily flow from one scene to the
next. Since a great deal of the action takes place in the boudoir, bed sheets
become gowns. Although the staging abandons authentic Roman-era verisimilitude,
the visual effect is one of an otherworldly milieu, not a vulgar deconstruction
of the baroque. Indeed, the creative minds behind this staging are to be
commended for not succumbing to the fashionable kitsch of Regieoper.
Their emendations and interpolations are few and help to enhance the musical
and dramatic effects of the opera.

Particularly satisfying was the choice not to sacrifice musical integrity
for visual effect. Rather than transpose the opera to accommodate modern
tessituras, singers were selected for the appropriateness of their voice,
rather than gender. As such, this staging employs counter-tenors (Ottone),
females performing male roles (Nerone), and males performing female roles
(Arnalta). This is done, however, not for the sake of gratuitous gender
bending, but to allow for the experience of authentic baroque vocal ranges.

Soprano Danielle de Niese’s performance in the title role is
musically, dramatically and visually spot on. As a musical actress, de Niese is
believable even in love scenes with Alice Coote’s Nerone. Also impressive
are counter-tenor Iestyn Davies in the role of Ottone and bass Paolo Battaglia
as Seneca. Although it is a secondary and somewhat thankless role, Tamara
Mumford performed admirably as Ottavia, particularly in her Act I rage aria
“Disprezzata regina.”

Conductor Emmanuelle HaÔm directed from the keyboard and displayed a
spontaneity and musicality that is often lacking in baroque opera. Her approach
is authentic performance for the sake of musicality rather than authenticity
for authenticity’s sake. In her hands, the performance was alive and was
fully in synch with the drama and rhetoric of the libretto, as one would expect
in a performance of a work by the creator of the secunda prattica.

This DVD has several additional features that are quite good, including a
brief history of the Glyndebourne Festival, interviews with the creative team,
and retrospectives of the 1962 and 1984 Glyndebourne stagings of
Poppea. All in all, this is an excellent DVD that will be satisfying
to both devotees of Monteverdi and baroque opera as well as those who are
experiencing the genre for the first time.

William E. Grim

image_description=Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronozione di Poppea
product_title=Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronozione di Poppea
product_by=Poppea: Danielle de Niese; Nerone: Alice Coote; Ottone: Iestyn Davies; Arnalta: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke; Ottavia: Tamara Mumford; Seneca: Paolo Battaglia; Amore: Amy Freston. Emmanuelle HaÔm conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Glyndebourne Chorus. Stage Director: Robert Carsen. Libretto by Giovanni Busenello. DVD of live performance at Glyndebourne Festival, June 2008
product_id=Decca 074 3339 [DVD]