L' Incoronazione Di Poppea - Claudio Monteverdi / Cynthia Haymon, Brigitte Balleys
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Almost four decades before creating his Poppea, Monteverdi wrote in the preface to his fifth book of madrigals: 'The modern composer must create his works solely on the basis of the truth', a credo to which the music of his final opera is utterly faithful. Poppea is a potent work from opera's first true creator and pioneering genius. The fact that, at the close of this highly charged dramma in musica , he allows evil to triumph over good (albeit temporarily) has frequently led to his being decried as amoral. Monteverdi's timeless masterpiece, which creates a deep involvement in performers and audiences alike, is brilliantly captured in this live recording of Pierre Audi's moving and beautifully styled production from Het Muziektheater Amsterdam in 1994. Sung in Italian with English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch subtitles.
Poppea: Cynthia Haymon Nerone: Brigitte Balleys Ottavia: Ning Liang Ottone: Michael Chance Seneca: Harry van der Kamp Drusilla: Heidi Grant Murphy Arnalta: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt Nutrice: Dominique Visse Valletto: Claron McFadden
Les Talens Lyriques Musical director: Christophe Rousset Stage director: Pierre Audi
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Almost four decades before creating his Poppea, Monteverdi wrote in the preface of his fifth book of madrigals: "The modern composer must create works solely on the basis of the truth"-a credo to which the music of his final opera is utterly faithful. 'L'incoronazione di Poppea' is a potent work from opera's first true creator and pioneering genius.
Even after three centuries, the music of Monteverdi glows with the passionate genius of a musical prophet. He was far ahead of his day in his conception of music as a dramatic, expressive art and in the realization of that conception.
He spurned the dry recitativos common to the opera of the day and instead gave the singers lovely melodies to sing. Short song-like passages were also included in the orchestral score. This opera demonstrates well these traits of Monteverdi. EXAMPLE: the enchanting melody that recurs in Drusilla's song that I call her 'happy' tune because she sings it first after Ottone tells her that he desires her instead of Poppea; unfortunately not true, but for the moment she believes it. There are several tuneful melodies that become asociated with specific characters.
The entire production is well done, and the specific characters perform with vigor and vitality and mega drama. The cast includes: Cynthia Haymon (Poppea)gives an exciting portrayal in her role as the 'greedy' gal who wants to become Empress at any cost to anybody. Brigitte Balleys in a 'pants' role of Nerone does it well, but I must confess I am 'put off' by most 'pants' roles (forgive me please); Michael Chance in the role of Ottone, Poppea's rejected suitor, provides us with an excellent portrayal of the rejected and angry lover; Seneca played by the 'booming' voice of Harry van der Kamp (love that voice)is full of himself as the advisor to Nerone; a sweet-voiced Heidi Grant Murphy plays her role (Drusilla) as the dedicated follower of Ottone. Ning Liang in the role of the Empress, who is about to be discarded, is truly magnificent with her rich resonant voice, handles all of her many moods (anger, revenge, despair, hatred, bullying) with finesse. All the singers are skilled and experienced in this genre, and it shows!
Monteverdi's timeless masterpiece, which creates a deep involvement in performers and audiences alike, is brilliantly captured in this High Definition LIVE recording of Pierre Audi's moving and beautifully styled production from Amsterdam in 1994. Sung in Italian with English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch subtitles, it also includes an illustrated synopsis, cast gallery and introduction. Picture and sound par excellence.
The youth and vitality that shines forth throughout this opera is remarkable, emanating as they do from a seventy-four year old churchmen.
SUNDAY TIMES: "Amsterdam has a model opera company: fresh, controversial and accessible...this Poppea is a quality product of self-evidently world class distinction.
PLEASE TAKE NOTE: THIS DVD IS NOT A GLYNDEBOURNE PRODUCTION; THIS IS THE NEDERSLANDS OPERA COMPANY. SO SEVERAL OF THESE REVIEWS DO NOT APPLY TO THIS DVD. AMAZON REALLY DOESN'T KNOW WHATS UP MOST OF THE TIME!!!!!TALK ABOUT CONFUSING THE BUYER!!!!!!
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 the 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!
[However, there is another DVD of Poppea, conducted by Emanuelle Haim and starring Daniela de Niese, which is equally successful musically and better in stagecraft:
Claudio Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea
... and, with any luck, sometime soon we'll have a performance by Les Arts Florissantes to complete William's Christie's Monteverdi Trinity:
Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria
But to get to my review proper, I'd call this a competent, well-executed, and energetic production, which could have been much more.
In general, the cast may have overachieved in a way--everything seemed forced: the singing unnecessarily harsh, the acting hamfisted. Audi's direction resulted in a stilted and melodramatic performance. I tried to view the concept of this production as essentially not that different from opera in general; it is art after all, in which stylization rather than reality is a perfectly legitimate component. But in the final analysis I just couldn't buy it. For one thing, unlike many operas that are built on plots that are really silly to the core, this one had both a serious subject and a thoughtful libretto; it deserves a more believable staging and performance.
The creative forces for this production apparently decided to emphasize Nero's power and self-indulgence--perfectly valid, but I think at odds with the music. Back in the 1970s I saw a much more convincing performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C., starring Alan Titus, the same tenor as in Bernstein's Mass. He and his leading lady were believable as a young couple in passionate love, something that I believe the languorous and hypnotic quality of Monteverdi's music supports.
In the production on this disc Brigitte Balleys, a mezzo, plays Nerone--not the typical "trouser role," which usually has a woman playing a youthful male, but in this case a more mature male, and a tyrant at that. This is a difficult act to pull off, and I suppose Balleys does a more convincing job, especially of looking tough, than many others might. As if to even things up gender-bending-wise, we have a man, Michael Chance, playing a young man (Ottone), but in the feminine voice of a counter-tenor, which would have been fine except that he doesn't really look the part. (Maybe someone more androgynous in appearance would have been better.) Once again, I find myself trying to apologize for this production: after all, these are Baroque operatic traditions in which I delight; but somehow they just didn't work for me here.
Cynthia Haymon brought sweetness and beauty to the role of Poppea, especially welcome in the otherwise rather barren feel of this production; but even with these qualities she lacked the degree of sensuousness and presence that I would like to have seen in the title role.
Besides the general failure of this production to "speak to me," I noted two specific problems:
(1) There was inconsistency in the use of vibrato by some of the singers. Switching from vibrato to white vocal production and back can be an effective expressive device, but in this production I could find no rhyme nor reason in the timing of when the respective colors were employed.
(2) There was unfortunate microphone placement. The orchestra was very close to the stage, and original instruments tend to be a bit underpowered, so the microphones had to be sensitive, and in the process picked up a distracting amount of thumping from the galumphing of the performers on stage.
The niche audience for this disc is those who delight in the arcane and the highly stylized; and this original-instrument, historically informed performance is easily competent enough to satisfy them. The music and timeless truths of this opera deserve a broader audience, however; and I think a more naturalistic acting style, perhaps substituting an actual male to sing Nero, would have wider appeal and more nearly give this glorious music its due. For those who share my preferences in this regard, I'd suggest passing on this, and hope for something more satisfying to come along. In the meantime, get a good CD like Harnoncourt's, and let your imagination provide the visual detail.
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