Few if any operas have ever combined such sublime music with such a profoundly philosophical libretto. For that reason, few operas cry out so urgently for meaningful staging and effective acting, as well as for superb musical values. This production by Les Talens Lyriques, directed by Christophe Rousset, achieves 100% musically and a quite sufficient 85% dramatically.
Poppea is a study in moral ambiguity, and every character in every scene contributes something to the unsettling of our moral expectations. Nerone is either an effective tyrant or a lewd fool. Ottavia is either a spurned faithful wife or a vengeful fury. Ottone is either a weakling love-sick puppy or a shrewd opportunist. Seneca is either the ideal Renaissance stoic or a fatuous sycophant. And Poppea? As totally she she seems to triumph in her incoronation, the audience of Monteverdi's time would have known their Roman history well enough to realize that in a few short years Nerone would repudiate her and stomp her to death with his lead-soled sandals. They'd also recall that Ottone survived Nerone to become one of the four ephemeral emperors in the Year of Four Emperors; he was no moral paragon, even by Roman standards. Nerone and Poppea are despicable humans for two and a half acts of the opera, and then sing the most sublime, heart-wrenching, convincing love duet in all of music!
The cast for this performance includes a fair share of the best baroque singers alive, even in the smaller roles, Sandrine Piau for instance singing Damigella and Dominique Visse the comic-relief role of the Nurse. There are no weak spots in this cast vocally. My only reservation is dramatic; the casting of Brigitte Balleys as Nerone seems to restrict the conviction with which the character can be portrayed. I would rather have watched a countertenor - Philippe Jaroussky or Gerard Lesne, for instance - toss off Nerone's arrogant tantrums. On the other hand, Harry van der Kamp as Seneca is brilliant casting. Seneca's death scene is, along with the concluding duet, the musical and dramatic core of the opera, and van der Kamp dies splendidly.
The instrumental ensemble is, if anything, even closer to absolute perfection than the vocal cast. Two cornettos, two recorders, three violins and two violas entwine their florid wreaths of melody around the recitativos of Giovanni Busenello's poetic libretto. Since most of the opera is in fact recitativo rather than da capo aria, the color and character of the basso continuo is supremely important, and Les Talens Lyriques doesn't scant a note. The continuo includes organ, harpsichord, lute, theorbo, harp, cello, violone, and viola da gamba, an amazing panoply of timbres.
I saw and heard the Los Angeles Opera performance of this same production, and the disappointments of that occasion make it even clearer to me how excellent the original in Amsterdam was. The opera was cut in LA; particularly the part of Seneca was stupidly truncated. The cornetto obbligatos were re-assigned to teh violins, and the continuo was not nearly as varied. All significant mistakes! This opera is too tightly constructed to be cut in any fashion. And to do it without cornettos is being criminally stingy!
Les Talens Lyriques has also produced a breathtaking performance on DVD of Monteverdi's Orfeo, which I've reviewed previously. Now there is a box set of Christophe Rousset's stagings of Monteverdi's three operas, plus the operatic madrigal Tancredi e Clorinda. Truly we live in glorious musical times!