Claudio Monteverdi - L’incoronazione di Poppea
Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2009
Harry Bicket, David Alden, Miah Persson, Sarah Connolly, Jordi Domenèch, Franz-Josef Selig, Maite Beaumont, Ruth Rosique, Dominique Visse, Guy de Mey, William Berger, Judith van Wanroij, Francisco Vas, Josep Miquel Ramón, Marisa Martins, Olatz Saitua
As if it’s not enough to be attributed with inventing opera itself – the first through-composed work being L’Orfeo in 1607 – Monteverdi advanced the artform even further with his last work, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), written at the age of 76. Previously operas were based only on classic mythological subjects – opera being a 17th century attempt to return to the ideals of Ancient Greek drama, which was then believed to have had a musical form – but, having moved into public theatres, and no longer a diversion for royalty and nobility, L’incoronazione di Poppea would be the first opera to deal with a historical subject and real people. The composer (there is still uncertainty about the authorship of the work, some believing that parts of the work at least may have been written by one of Monteverdi’s students) takes full advantage of this fact, revelling in the possibilities of extending the qualities associated with the musical-dramatic form to show less elevated and more down-to-earth human behaviour.
Directing Monteverdi’s final opera for the Liceu in Barcelona in 2009, David Alden emphasises this aspect in his colourful, modernised production (first produced in Munich in 1997) which certainly takes liberties with the characters and the setting to draw out the bawdiness and humour that is undoubtedly a part of the work, while Harry Bicket’s sensitive conducting of the Liceu’s Baroque orchestra finds the delicacy and sensitivity that it also part of the make-up of the human historical figures caught up in the drama of Nero’s reign in Rome around AD72. It’s a tricky proposition not only to achieve that magnificent balance, but also to find a way to make a 350 year-old work as vital and meaningful to a modern audience as it would have been to its original intended public. There’s no one right way to this, but it helps if you can achieve some balance between the traditional and the modern that captures the spirit of the work.
For Monteverdi, the Prologue to the opera sets out this clash between classicism and modernity in his new approach to representing historical drama in opera, where the typically allegorical figures of Virtue and Fortune battle it out for supremacy only to concede that it’s Love that holds greater sway in human affairs. In this story of revenge, infidelity, murder, lies and deceit, Virtue really doesn’t get a look in. Within this framework, away from the classical allusions to gods and mythological figures, Monteverdi finds a whole new wealth of emotions and personalities – most of them not entirely noble or honourable – to be explored through his innovative musical approach to continuo instrumentation, recitative and arioso. Busenello’s libretto also revels in the irreverence of the satire of these historical figures and the scandalous behaviour depicted, and, in its own way, Alden’s production taps into this for its rich vein of humour and presents it in a way which may be more meaningful to a modern audience.
If that approach at times resembles that of a Carry On film, that’s perhaps not as inappropriate as it sounds for this particular work. There is a great deal of sauciness in how Monteverdi and Busenello treat the scandalous behaviour of Nero’s infidelities and Poppea’s scheming. There is real passion in the seductive lines in which Nero and the music describe the hold that Poppea has over him, and there is some suggestiveness and homoeroticism in Nero and Lucan’s drunken celebration at having overthrown the stabilising influence of Seneca, but the activities of the Emperor and his affair with Poppea seems to promote a general licentiousness and scheming elsewhere among their associates. Brought together in this way, if Drusilla were to ask Ottone “Is that an axe in your trousers or are you just pleased to see me?”, or Nero to exclaim, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in f’ me!”, it wouldn’t be any more out of place than what is actually suggested there in the music and the libretto itself.
That’s essentially how Alden approaches this aspect of the work, using incongruity to play up the humour in the situation. Hence we have Roman soldiers lolling about on a red leather sofa-bed, much play on the cross-dressing and travesti roles (Nero is usually played by a female soprano, as it is here, but it can be done with a tenor), and obvious visual jokes such as the page Valletto being dressed as an old-fashioned hotel pageboy from 1930s movies, and the Nurse dressed in – yes, you guessed it – a medical uniform. The production creates a recognisable environment then for the modern viewer to relate to, one that is attractively designed with plenty of variety in the arrangements, beautifully lit and coloured, witty, ironic and referential without being overly-clever, keeping the spirit of that aspect of the work intact.
There is however much more to L’incoronazione di Poppea than that and the directorial approach is not quite so successful when it comes to approaching the more lyrical qualities of the work. This is best demonstrated by Seneca’s death scene, which should be one of the most moving moments in the whole opera, but it fails to strike the right tone here. Musically, it’s perfect. Harry Bicket’s arrangement and Franz-Josef Selig’s bass have the right measure of gravity, nobility and tragedy, but the staging and the curiously dressed pupils of the philosopher work against the deeper implications that this event is to have on the subsequent course of events. Much of the balance in the production is left then to Bicket and the Baroque orchestra of the Liceu to pick up and, indeed, they do so brilliantly. It’s a sparser arrangement that doesn’t have the same rhythmic verve as the 1993 René Jacobs recording (on Arthaus DVD) that I am familiar with, but every note of the sparingly used chitarrone and harpsichord continuo is beautifully weighed and balanced, all the more to highlight the flute, harp and other affetto instrumentation that gives colour to the characters and emotions through their arias.
The emotion and verve of the singing and acting performances also makes up for the slight lack of dynamic in the staging. Miah Persson is terrific as Poppea – much more animated and lyrical here than in anything else I’ve heard her sing (Britten and Stravinsky) – and Sarah Connolly is a fine impassioned Nero, not essentially evil, but in thrall to his passions and power. Jordi Domenèch is a little light as the countertenor Ottone, but the variety of his tone balances the other singers well. Maite Beaumont is outstanding as Ottavia and Franz-Josef Selig, as mentioned earlier, suitably dignified as Seneca. The real highlight of this production however is Dominique Visse, who is also the Nutrice in the above mentioned René Jacobs version, but here he takes on the contralto roles of the Nurse and Arnalta, fully entering into the spirit of Alden’s production. It’s the variety of singing parts that is one of the great qualities ofL’incoronazione di Poppea and the casting here is superbly balanced in this respect.
Just as important, in this context, is the quality of the recording, and this release is absolutely stunning to look at and listen to in High Definition. There is a beautiful clarity to the singing and the instrumentation with a wonderful sense of ambience. This is sheer perfection as far as technical specifications go and, as far as this production is concerned, it brings out all the qualities of an extraordinary work of early opera. Extras on the DVD and Blu-ray consist only of a Cast Gallery and a narrated Synopsis, while an essay in the booklet takes a closer look at aspects of David Alden’s production. The subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Catalan.