L’Incoronazione di Poppea from Virgin Classics

Upon its rediscovery near the
end of the 19th Century, Monteverdi’s score fell victim to ‘improvements’
by many hands, the efforts of which were mostly inspired by recognition of the
quality of the score to endeavor to span the chasm separating modern musical
values from the performance practices of the mid-17th Century.† Esteemed
composers Vincent d’Indy, Ernst Krenek, Carl Orff, and Gian Francesco
Malipiero prepared editions of the opera, and Sir Michael Tippett presided over
a scholarly effort at editing the score at Morley College.† It was the 1962
production prepared by Raymond Leppard for the Glyndebourne Festival that
reintroduced L’Incoronazione di Poppea to 20th-Century music lovers,
its accomplished cast—including Richard Lewis, Magda L·szlÛ, Frances Bible,
Walter Alberti, Carlo Cava, Lydia Marimpieri, Oralia Dominguez, John
Shirley-Quirk, and Hugues CuÈnod—recorded for posterity by EMI.†
Leppard’s edition of the score arranged Monteverdi’s delicate
instrumentation, ever subject to debate owing to lingering uncertainty about
the precise complement of instruments for which Monteverdi’s score was
written, for a large modern symphony orchestra; at Glyndebourne and on EMI’s
recording the Royal Philharmonic under the baton of Sir John Pritchard.† Like
most of its few contemporaries, the Glyndebourne production also transposed
several important rÙles for singers whose genders matched those of their
characters rather than the vocal ranges indicated in Monteverdi’s score.†
Nerone, likely first sung by a soprano castrato, thus became a tenor,
and the alto rÙle of Ottone was reassigned to a baritone.† Though musically
far removed from any notion of authenticity, the Glyndebourne recording offered
several exceptional performances that revealed the great beauty, variety, and
dramatic vitality of Monteverdi’s music: the tonal allure and sensuality of
Magda L·szlÛ’s Poppea, the dignity of Carlo Cava’s Seneca (in what may be
the finest recording of his career), the histrionic power of Frances Bible’s
Ottavia, and the standard-setting Lucano of Hugues CuÈnod all contributed to a
considerably abridged recording that now sounds like a bloated fossil from an
operatic Stone Age but remains an enjoyable example of legitimate efforts to
marry good voices with great music.† It was not until Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s
pioneering 1974 recording that a credible attempt was made at restoring
L’Incoronazione di Poppea to something resembling what
Monteverdi’s audiences might have heard in Venice in 1643 or in Naples in
1651, during what is believed to have been the only revival of the opera until
the early 20th Century.† Staged productions of the opera—notably the 1963
performances at the Wiener Staatsoper conducted by Herbert von Karajan,
benefiting from the radiant Poppea of Sena Jurinac—were slow to follow
Harnoncourt’s example until the historically-informed performance practice
movement was firmly established throughout Europe.† After the publication of
American conductor Alan Curtis’s edition of the score, which sought to
preserve fidelity to the surviving Venice and Naples manuscripts to the
greatest extent possible, productions have increasingly utilized versions of
the opera that honor musicological concepts of period-appropriate performance
values in terms of instrumentation and vocal styles.† If some early efforts at
presenting L’Incoronazione di Poppea in an historically-sensitive
manner resulted in fragile musical qualities that seemed effective only in the
settings of small Baroque theatres, this production by Jean-FranÁois
Sivadier—taped by Virgin Classics during performances at the OpÈra de Lille
in March 2012—proves that Monteverdi’s opera, even when performed on period
instruments, is the equal of the greatest masterpieces in the operatic
repertory and is capable of being produced effectively in any theatre in the

Mr. Sivadier’s production plants L’Incoronazione di Poppea
firmly in a world of decadence, aestheticism, casual morals, and recreational
sex used as a weapon in political turf wars.† Superbly enhanced by scenic
designs by Alexandre de Dardel, lighting by Philippe BerthomÈ, and gorgeous
costumes by Virginie Gervaise (not to be confused with French adult film star
Virginie Gervais, whose presence would be strangely appropriate in this
deliciously sexy production), Mr. Sivadier refines his extensive experience in
French lyric theatre and opera—including a psychologically thrilling
production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck—into an organized but
enthrallingly ambiguous account of Monteverdi’s score.† Perhaps the most
intriguing dramatic aspect of the opera is the composer’s portrait of his
title character: one of the most duplicitous figures in Roman history, as
ruthless in pursuit of her ambitions as any Emperor or Senator, Poppea is
shaped by Monteverdi with music of almost ethereal beauty.† No other operatic
heroine of such cruelty conducts her conspiracies more attractively.† The
nastiest sentiments in Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s libretto are set by the
composer to the most extraordinarily captivating music.† Mr. Sivadier’s
production explores this dichotomy entrancingly, portraying Poppea as a
sociopathic manipulator who calculatingly exploits every tic of Nerone’s
neuroses.† Considering the opera merely as a series of emotional exchanges
removed from their specific historical context, L’Incoronazione di
is—like the plays of Shakespeare—surprisingly modern.†
Paranoia, cheating spouses, rampant narcissism, and obsession are all as
central to Monteverdi’s opera as to any 21st-Century novel or film.† Mr.
Sivadier explores all of these elements in his production without in any way
distorting Monteverdi’s finely-crafted drama, sharpening the opera’s edge
while avoiding damaging its 17th-Century patina.† There are manic moments in
the production, but it cannot be denied that L’Incoronazione di
is not populated by completely sane people.† Mr. Sivadier’s
gifts for creating edge-of-the-seat, meaningful theatrical experiences are
validated in this production, in which there are strokes of genius.

As too many performances in the past half-century have proved, even the most
innovative production falls flat when musical values do not keep pace with the
dramatic ventures.† Having gone all in with Mr. Sivadier’s production,
OpÈra de Lille matched the magnificent dramatic qualities with the
trend-setting musical values of Emmanuelle HaÔm and Le Concert d’AstrÈe.†
An acknowledged mistress of Early Music and Baroque opera, Maestra HaÔm brings
dynamic instincts for thoughtful shaping of Monteverdi’s music to this
production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea, her fidelity to presumed
notions of authentic instrumentation never standing in the way of adroit
exploration of the textures of sound possible with period instruments.† None
of the players in Le Concert d’AstrÈe displays anything less than absolute
virtuosity, and the musical quality of the recorded production is nothing short
of incredible.† Thankfully, Virgin Classics’s engineers, guided by Philippe
BÈziat, have avoided problems of balance that can imperil the distinctive
sounds of period instruments, placing the performance within a recorded
acoustic that suggests a natural theatrical space but also fosters an exemplary
blend between stage and pit.† L’Incoronazione di Poppea is a long
night at the theatre, but Maestra HaÔm keeps the performance moving without
rushing or adopting tempi that are quick solely for the sake of
brevity.† Joining with Mr. Sivadier and the production team, Maestra HaÔm and
Le Concert d’AstrÈe lay a foundation upon which a talented cast can build a
memorable L’Incoronazione di Poppea.

With singers as gifted as musicians and actors as Nicholas Mulroy, Mathias
Vidal, Patrick Schramm, Aimery LefËvre, Camille Poul, Khatouna Gadelia, and
Anna Wall in secondary rÙles, this production immediately offers a richness of
casting that is virtually impossible in a production of any Verdi, Wagner,
Strauss, or Puccini opera today.† An artist of proven excellence, Mr. Mulroy
brings his engagingly plangent tenor voice to all of the parts that he sings in
this performance.† His unerring dramatic instincts and superb musicality are
matched by the fantastic tenor Mathias Vidal, whose bravura Lucano is
a worthy successor to the legacy of Hugues CuÈnod, and promising young bass
Patrick Schramm.† Baritone Aimery LefËvre joins rambunctiously into the
spirit of the production, his singing as Mercurio especially animated.†
Soprano Camille Poul sings attractively as Amore and the Damigella.† The
exotic young soprano Khatouna Gadelia makes the most of every line she sings as
la Virt˘ and the Valletto.† Fortuna, Venere, and Pallade benefit from the
lovely voice and lively stage presence of mezzo-soprano Anna Wall.

Moroccan countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam, whose Metropolitan Opera dÈbut
as Nireno in the Company’s first presentation of the celebrated David McVicar
production of H‰ndel’s Giulio Cesare garnered praise from both
audiences and critics, is in this production of L’Incoronazione di
a commanding presence as the Nutrice, the elderly nursemaid of the
rightful Empress Octavia.† The voice is a vibrant instrument, and Mr. Ben
Abdeslam brings unexpected depths of feeling to the Nutrice’s words of
comfort to the disenfranchised Ottavia.† Equally impressive as one of the
followers of Seneca, he is a consistently gripping actor and energetic singer
in this performance.† Another singer of North African extraction contributes
beguilingly to the production: Algeria-born soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul offers
an intriguingly wide array of emotions in her performance as Drusilla, her
trials endured with dignity and a sense of dedication to making the most of her
destiny.† A very attractive young woman with an endearingly expressive command
of stage motion, Ms. Brahim-Djelloul bears Drusilla’s betrayal with
integrity, the voice poised and freely-produced even in moments of greatest
emotional stress.

The Swiss-born son of Chilean parents, tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro is an
accomplished performer of the unique haute-contre rÙles in Baroque
opera.† Possessing a technique that enables him to sing even the most
demanding music without worry, Mr. Gonzalez Toro has carefully honed his skills
as an actor.† The humor that he brings to his performance as Arnalta,
Poppea’s nurse, is broad but understated: without conveying condescension to
the spirit of his travesti rÙle, Mr. Gonzalez Toro reveals the innate
absurdity of having an older woman sung by a male singer.† This respects
Monteverdi’s handling of this convention of his time, of course, and Mr.
Gonzalez Toro is a pleasingly shy presence as the wilting nurse.†
Surprisingly, Arnalta was blessed by her composer with one of Monteverdi’s
most enchantingly comely melodic inspirations, ‘Oblivion soave,’ the
so-called lullaby sung to the uneasy Poppea.† The passage is no easy sing for
a tenor, the artist’s command of the tessitura notwithstanding, but
Mr. Gonzalez Toro sings it winningly.

It is easy to understand the mindsets of editors of L’Incoronazione di
who transposed the rÙle of Ottone from Monteverdi’s original
contralto register to baritone range.† In addition to making the opera more
palatable for modern audiences by having characters sing with voices that
adhere to conventions of how they should sound, with male characters having
men’s voices, making Ottone—and Nerone, for that matter—a rÙle for an
‘ordinary’ male voice mitigates a preponderance of high voices in the
opera.† There can be little doubt that Monteverdi created a sound world in
which Seneca was the only deep-voiced principal character with very deliberate
intentions, however, and musicians who approached L’Incoronazione di
in the early years of its renaissance did not have today’s crop
of good countertenors at their disposal.† Few performances of the opera have
enjoyed an Ottone as fine as British countertenor Tim Mead, whose centered,
focused voice aligns with acting that gets at the heart of the character.†
Facing misfortune and rejection, Ottone’s character is not entirely
unblemished: he, too, engages in artifice, all too willingly accepting
Drusilla’s affection for his own benefit when he is keenly aware that his
heart pines only for Poppea.† Mr. Mead reflects this duality convincingly in
his performance, coloring the voice intelligently and summoning dulcet tones
for Ottone’s most heartfelt utterances, not least in his first scene.† A
lithe, handsome performer, Mr. Mead interacts with his colleagues
fascinatingly, his Ottone generating great chemistry with Ms.
Brahim-Djelloul’s Drusilla.† Mr. Mead’s voice is genuinely beautiful, and
the sincerity of his performance makes Ottone an unusually looming presence in
the opera.

Youth is not a quality that is typically associated with Seneca, the
legendary philosopher and tutor having been in his mid-sixties at the time of
his death.† New Zealand-born bass-baritone Paul Whelan is a young singer, but
he wisely allows the low tessitura of Monteverdi’s music for Seneca
to depict the character’s age and wisdom rather than adopting any sort of
embarrassing attempts at aged frailty.† History suggests that Seneca was
likely innocent of Nero’s charges of complicity in an assassination plot, but
Monteverdi’s point in giving Seneca’s forced suicide such a prominent place
in the drama—and in having the dazzlingly difficult coloratura duet
of celebration for the drunken Nerone and Lucano follow hard on its heels—is
that morality cannot survive in a world such as that inhabited by Nerone and
his court.† Mr. Whelan plausibly enacts this sense of Seneca against the
World, and the gravitas with which he sings Seneca’s death scene is
commanding but not unduly heavy.† While other, older, darker-voiced singers
have conveyed greater mystery and hoary unflappability in the rÙle, Mr.
Whelan’s performance—unimpeded by unnecessary posturing,
creatively-phrased, and firmly-voiced—is completely successful on its own

The technique of Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg is a wonder of nature,
her mastery of even the most dizzying coloratura equaled by her
ability to project long arcs of lustrous tone in cantilena.† In her
performance of Ottavia in this production, she also proves to be a tragedienne
of unimpeachable serenity.† The daughter of the Emperor Claudius, a cousin of
Caligula, and a descendent of Tiberius, Claudia Octavia was the first wife of
Nero and the rightful Empress regnant: unsettled by her inevitable involvement
in the power struggles between Nero and his mother, Agrippina, she was an
upright, moral woman.† It is not surprising that Nero quickly tired of her.†
If Poppea was the Wallace Simpson of Imperial Rome, Ottavia was its Queen
Mother: unbending and courageous even in the face of great adversity and
danger, she won the hearts of Romans and was passionately mourned when she,
too, was forced to ritualistic suicide.† Ms. Hallenberg’s singing wins the
hearts of the Lille audience, the stylishness of her execution of
Monteverdi’s music providing moment after moment of fire and tenderness.†
The passion of her reaction to Nero’s rejection brings to mind the intensity
of Maria Callas and Leyla Gencer in the scene in which Henry VIII orders the
rightful Queen’s imprisonment and trial in Donizetti’s Anna
.† Ms. Hallenberg’s Ottavia is deflated but audibly never
defeated by the machinations that deprive her of her throne, and any sense of
bitterness or contempt is dispelled by her heartbreakingly beautiful
performance of ‘Addio, Roma,’ the scene in which she laments her impending
exile from her beloved Eternal City.† Knowing that she is capable of almost
unbelievable feats of vocal virtuosity, Ms. Hallenberg touches the heart most
viscerally in this performance with her moments of lyrical quietude.† Her
music leaves no doubt that Ottavia engaged Monteverdi’s sympathy: Ms.
Hallenberg’s performance permits no question of the importance of Ottavia as
a musical ancestor of the most affecting tragic heroines in opera.

Nero has one of the most unflattering and contentious legacies in history.†
Maligned by many historians, some of whom have suggested that Rome collectively
rejoiced in his death, other scholars—both ancient and modern—argue that
Nero has been unfairly criticized and made a scapegoat for the unsavory
politics that festered in Rome during his reign.† Mostly overlooking his less
attractive qualities, Monteverdi portrays Nerone as a lover whose sense of
morality is secondary to his chasing of carnal pleasure.† Unbecomingly
bewigged but a swaggeringly masculine, libidinous participant in the drama,
countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic is the arrogant, hormonal Emperor to the
life.† The boundless energy with which Mr. Cencic portrays Nerone admits no
doubt that his thinking is mostly done in his trousers, but the glorious
singing makes it clear that this Emperor’s richest treasures are in his
throat.† Mr. Cencic’s voice is unlike those of many countertenors, his
timbre deep and more conventionally operatic: completely absent are the
hootiness familiar from the singing of many countertenors and the clumsy
register breaks that undermine the best efforts of even very good
falsettists.† There are occasional moments of concern when it seems that Mr.
Cencic pushes his upper register hard, but the results are unfailingly exciting
and put to vivacious dramatic use.† Like Ms. Hallenberg, Mr. Cencic is a
celebrated practitioner of bravura singing, and his delivery of the
coloratura in Nerone’s duet with Lucano—‘Hor che Seneca Ë
morte, cantiam’—is breathtaking.† His come-hither tones lend his
performance a steamy eroticism that is complemented by his frenetic acting, his
Nerone slinking through the performance with the sleazy charm of a playboy
known in every house of ill repute in Rome.† The tessitura of Nerone
is high for a countertenor, but Mr. Cencic, whose voice has a slightly higher
center of vocal gravity than those of many of his counterparts, has all of the
notes comfortably in the voice.† There are moments of luminously beautiful and
restrained singing even in this impetuous performance, and Mr. Cencic makes
Monteverdi’s ornaments sound completely natural.† With a DECCA recording of
the rÙle of Andronico in H‰ndel’s Tamerlano scheduled for release
in October, 2013 is poised to be another year of tremendous success for Mr.
Cencic.† Based solely on his singing of Nerone in this performance of
L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Mr. Cencic’s importance as a singer is

Supported by a cast of such distinction, young Bulgarian soprano Sonya
Yoncheva more than holds her own as a determined, irresistibly tantalizing
Poppea.† A woman with Hollywood starlet looks and curves, Ms. Yoncheva has
engagements as Donizetti’s Lucia and Verdi’s Violetta on her horizon, and
her Poppea might be viewed as a study for both rÙles.† Spinning out golden
tones from start to finish, it is hardly astonishing that her Poppea should so
captivate Ottone or so arouse Nerone.† Costumed like a Jean Harlow vixen, Ms.
Yoncheva exudes sex appeal, her hold on Nerone developing as surely as though
she were SalomÈ performing the Dance of the Seven Veils before Herod.†
Physical beauty, alert acting, and capable singing are rarely as absorbingly
combined in a single performance as in Ms. Yoncheva’s Poppea.† Perhaps
Monteverdi intended his portrait of Poppea as a sly commentary on the power of
a pretty seductress to triumph over goodness, her misdeeds forgiven and
forgotten as soon as she smiles.† In Poppea’s toying with Nerone and Ottone,
her triumph might also be interpreted as a victory of lust over love, though
here, too, a musical problem is encountered: ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo,’
the concluding duet for Poppea and Nerone, though almost certainly not the work
of Monteverdi (modern scholarship suggests the little-remembered Benedetto
Ferrari as the most likely candidate for having composed both the music and the
text), is unabashedly beautiful.† If truly not the work of Monteverdi, it was
almost certainly appended to L’Incoronazione di Poppea either by the
composer himself or with his blessing [the duet is present in autograph
materials of both the Venice and Naples versions of the opera], so it is
possible that the apparent celebration of the triumph of scheming, the text of
the duet ripe with subtle sexual undertones, was at least partially
intentional.† Ms. Yoncheva’s and Mr. Cencic’s voices intertwine like a
lovers’ embrace in the duet, closing the opera in an atmosphere of relative
dramatic calm and sensual release.† Visually and musically, Ms. Yoncheva
leaves nothing to be desired, her performance as Poppea the proper centerpiece
of a potent account of Monteverdi’s opera.

With its complex relationships, destructive sexual politics, and crumbling
social orders, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea is as
psychologically momentous as any of Wagner’s operas.† Nerone shares with
Wotan the dubious distinction of being a man of absolute but dwindling power
with both a strong wife of noble birth and a roving eye.† Like all the best
works of art, Monteverdi’s opera is both decidedly of its specific time and
place and definitively universal.† Recordings of L’Incoronazione di
on DVD are no longer rare, but this version from Virgin
Classics—a record of what is without question one of the best-sung
productions of the opera in its history—can be jubilantly crowned the best of
the lot.

Joseph Newsome

Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643): L’Incoronazione di
—S. Yoncheva (Poppea), M. E. Cencic (Nerone), A.
Hallenberg (Ottavia), T. Mead (Ottone), P. Whelan (Seneca), A. Brahim-Djelloul
(Drusilla), R. Ben Abdeslam (Nutrice, un famigliare di Seneca), E. Gonzalez
Toro (Arnalta), A. Wall (Fortuna, Venere, Pallade), K. Gadelia (Virt˘,
Valletto), Camille Poul (Amore, Damigella), A. LefËvre (Mercurio, Console), P.
Schramm (un famigliare di Seneca, Littore), M. Vidal (Soldato, un famigliare di
Seneca, Lucano), N. Mulroy (Soldato, Liberto capitano, Tribuno); Le Concert
d’AstrÈe; Emmanuelle HaÔm [Recorded in March 2012 during performances at
the OpÈra de Lille; Virgin Classics 9289919; NSTC, Region Code 0]

[This review was first published at Voix
des Arts
. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]

product_title=L’Incoronazione di Poppea from Virgin Classics
product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome
product_id=Virgin Classics 9289919 [2DVDs]