L'Incoronazione di Poppea
De Niese, Bonitatibus, Quintans; Jaroussky, Cencic, Abete; Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie. Production: Pizzi. Virgin Classics 07095191 (2 DVDs), 180 mins., subtitled
Danielle de Niese, Philippe Jaroussky, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants raise hopes sky-high for this 2010 Poppea from Madrid's Teatro Real, and they don't let us down.
Two years after her Glyndebourne Poppea (available on DVD from Decca), de Niese here is less girlish and giddy and dances no more. She seems more settled, focused and accomplished as a seductress and as a singer. She sings with little vibrato; her considerable sensuality comes from her phrasing and her physical presence. The art of male-soprano singing has developed to the point that a few sopranists now can sing Nerone, which lies high for most countertenors and many mezzo-sopranos. Jaroussky soars through Nerone's music with purity and beauty, pressed only at the very top. His angelic tone, gangling stature and eager demeanor help create an overgrown boy of an emperor who relishes his own cruelty, is crazy about Poppea and is putty in her hands.
Christie elegantly, fleetly leads Les Arts Florissants from the harpsichord, organ and regal in a "new edition of the score by Jonathan Cable" (who plays the continuo double bass), evidently based on the Venice manuscript. It includes the scenes for the deities Pallade, Mercurio and Venere. There's no percussion; the music has less color, more reserve and seems even more historically informed than what we hear under Emmanuelle Haïm on the Glyndebourne discs and Alessandro de Marchi on the recent Norwegian National Opera release (reviewed in the July issue). Christie and sixteen other musicians in a raised pit are shown watching and interacting with the singers onstage.
Casting excellence extends beyond Poppea and Nerone to the intense, frustrated Ottavia of mezzo Anna Bonitatibus; the sensitive, fluid Ottone of countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic; and the dream Drusilla of soprano Ana Quintans. The sopranos of Suzana Ograjensˇek and Katherine Watson, as Valletto and Damigella, entwine exquisitely. (Watson also sings Virtù.) Andreas Wolf sings a firm Liberto. Robert Burt's Arnalta would be amusing if his tenor weren't so thin. Several artists and characters register as dull — bass Antonio Abete (Seneca), tenor José Lemos (Nutrice), tenor Mathias Vidal (Lucano), soprano Hanna Bayodi-Hirt (Amore). Soprano Claire Debono (Fortuna/Pallade/Venere) tries to inflect life into characters shackled by the staging.
Director/designer Pier Luigi Pizzi places the allegorical figures on carts and the deities on the set's upper level, separating them from the human characters and immobilizing them. Perhaps he has seen too many hyperactive Amores, for he presents Amore — "who moves the sun and other stars" and fuels the plot — as a sedate woman who moves hardly at all and sings with little expression. A revolving set of white and black marble with mirrors is apt for a cold, cruel Rome without privacy or safety, where each citizen must speak softly and watch his back, but it's an ill fit for the erotically inclined protagonists, whose "bed" is a marble chaise longue. Most of the period-unspecific costumes are black, gray or white. In contrast to the music, the staging tends toward the marmoreal and weighty, qualities that only de Niese and Quintans (wholly) and Jaroussky and Bonitatibus (largely) overcome.
Still, with Christie and his superb orchestra and excellent principals, this just edges out the Glyndebourne performance to become musically the leading Poppea on video. It nicely complements the powerfully staged, strikingly filmed Norwegian performance.
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