L'Incoronazione di Poppea
Christensen, Bardon, Sølberg; Laszczkowski, Mead, Parodi; Orchestra of the Norwegian National Opera, de Marchi. Production: Tandberg. EuroArts 2058924 (Blu-ray) or 2058928 (DVD), 180 mins., subtitled
This powerful modern-dress-and-undress staging by Ole Anders Tandberg, strikingly adapted and filmed by Anja Stabell and Stein-Roger Bull, comes from Stage 2, the 400-seat second theater of Norwegian National Opera's waterfront Oslo Opera House. The film is rendered in black and white with color pass effects: usually the only color allowed is red, which draws focus to lips and mouths, often the only onscreen sources of red. The big payoff begins with Seneca's bloody suicide by razor blade, the first of this staging's many violent deaths that line Poppea's path to the throne. As the playing surface is concave, blood flows or is washed to a central pool in which Nerone and Poppea play. Sleeping to Arnalta's lovely lullaby, Poppea dreams of a coronation awash in a lake of blood. When the great event arrives, Nerone wipes his bloody hands on Ottavia's corpse and slips off her crown and wedding ring.
Tandberg stresses the toxic corruption of Nerone's Rome, and most of the cast embodies it so persuasively that the bloodshed seems as rigorously logical as it is lurid. Some sexual fondling also may repel some viewers. Occasionally, a color other than red is seen — blue for the sky, green for phallic cucumbers. Fortuna, Virtù and Amore have flaring halos. Shot selection, with frequent close-ups, seems aimed at delivering the most intense impact possible. I've seen hundreds of opera videos and never one more riveting.
Soprano Birgitte Christensen, a lush-voiced, attractive, buxom Poppea, sings well but lacks the stage presence of most of her colleagues here and the magnetic allure of such video Poppeas as Maria Ewing, Mireille Delunsch and Danielle de Niese. In contrast, Jacek Laszczkowski commands the stage as a demented, sadistic Nerone; his body language and his virtuoso "soprano countertenor," with its discomfiting, hooty tone, vividly convey the emperor's instability and lunacy. The only other possible casting liability is shrieky soprano Amelie Aldenheim (Amore, Pallade, Damigella), a perky beauty who is delightful to watch. Mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as Ottavia and contralto Tone Kruse as Nutrice are vocally and visually superb. Nearly as outstanding are countertenor Tim Mead (Ottone), sopranos Marita Sølberg (Virtù, Drusilla) and Ina Kringlebotn (Fortuna), bass Giovanni Battista Parodi (Seneca) and tenors Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro (Arnalta), Magnus Staveland (First Soldier, Lucano) and David Fielder (Second Soldier, Valetto).
Notes and credits don't describe conductor Alessandro de Marchi's "music elaboration" or offer a list of instruments, but the orchestra sounds and looks like a crack period ensemble of twenty to twenty-five players. Strings bowed and plucked are beautiful, ritornellos explosive. There's more organ, brass and percussion than we usually hear in Poppea — and, in spots, a jazz-band sound.
As with the visuals, voices and orchestra are recorded closely — Monteverdi as in-your-face music drama. Show it or give it to someone who thinks Baroque opera is boring.
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