L’Incoronazione di Poppea
M. Persson, Connolly, Beaumont, Rosique; Domènech, Selig; Baroque Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Bicket. Production: D. Alden. Opus Arte OA BD7105 D (Blu-ray) or OA 1073 D (DVD), 183 mins. (opera), 6 mins. (bonus), subtitled
David Alden’s well-traveled Poppea production, new in 1997 and seen most often in Munich, was finally filmed for commercial release in February 2009 at Barcelona’s Liceu. Alden and designers Paul Steinberg (sets), Buki Shiff (costumes) and Pat Collins (lighting) stress the modernity and the comedy of Poppea through twentieth-century props (revolving door, sleeper couch, office chairs, filing cabinet) and garish colors (lime green, various purples and pinks). One scene plays as a snack/coffee break for calorie-conscious workers. Ottavia’s farewell, the coronation and the final duet are set against a distorted black-and-white checkerboard.
Alden presents most of the characters — divine, allegorical and human — as ineffectual cartoons. The gods are dead — dressed in black or wrapped as mummies. The allegorical figures are disabled: Fortuna totters on platform shoes, a pregnant Virtù hobbles on crutches, Amore is weighed down by huge wings. As for the humans, Seneca’s friends are effete schoolboy caricatures; Damigella is a bored slut with cigarette who spreads her legs for Valletto on Seneca’s casket; Ottone and Drusilla are neurotic, klutzy and sex-starved, and their love story is unmoving. It’s high camp at high cost. The action culminates in a coronation that Poppea, so smart until then, takes seriously, clueless that it’s a farce. She’s crowned by her nurse; the consuls and tribunes are clowns with Pinocchio noses; the guests include drunk Amore, mummified Venere and plump, pink Cupids.
Poppea, Nerone, Ottavia and Seneca are the exceptions who are treated as human beings, and the performance shines when the cartoon characters clear out for these principals’ splendidly sung scenes. Two recent Poppea videos have had sharply contrasting Nerones — Jacek Laszczkowski’s sadistic lunatic (EuroArts) and Philippe Jaroussky’s overgrown boy (Virgin). Here, Sarah Connolly is an emperor who strives to keep intense feelings under control and himself on task. He mostly succeeds, partly by forcing himself not to look very often at Poppea. Miah Persson’s Poppea sounds and looks smashing in everything from a simple spring dress to glitzy Hollywood attire to snaky Medusa locks. Vocally and emotionally, Maite Beaumont’s Ottavia resonates deeply, and her farewell is the single best thing here. Franz-Josef Selig is the strongest Seneca on video since the primes of Matti Salminen and Robert Lloyd.
Judith van Wanroij (Virtù/Damigella) and Marisa Martins (Fortuna/Pallade/ Venere) sing expressively through bizarre getups. Dominique Visse is a kick as nurses Arnalta and Nutrice — Alden’s approach is apt for the characters who are irreverent or flamboyant — and he sings the piquant high line in the trio of Seneca’s friends. Jordi Domènech’s Ottone and Olatz Saitua’s Amore are weak, Ruth Rosique’s Drusilla and the remaining male singers undistinguished.
Unlike the staging, Harry Bicket’s conducting and the playing of the Baroque Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu are reserved, even reticent. Lovely plucked strings quietly dominate. The unusually full edition includes a few brief, seldom heard passages.
This is the third video of Poppea to be released this year, and all three are musically excellent. William Christie’s Madrid performance takes the musical laurels, and Ole Anders Tandberg’s powerful Norwegian National Opera staging, strikingly filmed, is a must-see. Those looking for a safer runner-up might turn to Robert Carsen’s elegant Glyndebourne staging from 2008. Enjoy the bounty!
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