L'Incoronazione di Poppea
Schuman, D. Brooks, Kuhlmann; Gall, R. Croft, Rayam, Visse, Peeters; Concerto Köln, R. Jacobs. Art Haus Musik 102 304 D, 151 mins., subtitled
Claudio Monteverdi's final opera remains one of the most profound works in the canon, prefiguring the music dramas of Wagner and Mussorgsky in complexity and nuance of musical characterization by several centuries. This DVD, deriving from the Schwetzingen Festival of 1993, captures some of its magic and certainly merits acquaintance on the musical level. René Jacobs maintains high musical values, with none of the "imp of the perverse" hijinks (quotes, interpolations, odd instrumentation, ostentatious continuo playing) that have enlivened but sometimes disfigured his recent output. The Concert Köln is responsive and engaged, and the leading singers — all but two of them American — perform strongly.
More mixed is the production by Michael Hampe. Personal characterizations and motivations are intelligently mapped and communicated. The Wieland Wagner-influenced disc set (mapped as the Classically-known Earth) by Hampe and Graziano Gregori admirably facilitates significant entrances and exits. Less pleasing are Gregori's costumes — "black and white and red all over," as the old school joke runs — which manage in most cases not to flatter an exceptionally attractive cast of singers. Prospective buyers should note that Jacobs and Hampe make both whacking and small cuts in Busenello's brilliant libretto, achieving a streamlined, "essential" Poppea but one lacking in some of the full piece's ambiguities and dimensions. First to go is the three-deity Prologue, which in performance lends the drama its philosophical underpinnings. Valletto's railing against Seneca is (perhaps mercifully) shortened; Arnalta expresses no pity for the rejected Ottone; no Chorus of Virtues welcomes Seneca to heaven; the long Valletto–Damigella scene vanishes altogether, as does Nerone and Poppea's considerable dialogue before the Consuls and Tribunes' praise.
Richard Croft and Patricia Schuman make a sexy power couple. The tenor, singing with sensuous ductility and beautiful tone, makes the boyish Emperor alternately impassive and manic: both personas are duly scary. Schuman's charm almost humanizes Poppea; her bright soprano occasionally turns glassy in high phrases. Kathleen Kuhlmann offers an intense, stylish Ottavia, scorchingly vocalized. An impassioned actor, countertenor Jeffrey Gall makes the weak-willed Ottone a complex figure; it's nice to revisit his characterful and often beautiful phrasing. Harry Peeters brings some dignity and considerable artistry to Seneca; his bass could be more refulgent, especially at its lower end. Darla Brooks, styled as a laundress rather than a court lady, sings prettily and with feeling as Drusilla. Both nurses are in travesti. Curtis Rayam camps and vamps through Arnalta delightfully, singing beautifully when needed (as in the lullaby); Dominique Visse gives the Nutrice a somewhat abrasive "public pet" performance. Among the youthfully attractive but uneven performers of smaller roles, Anne Schwanewilms as Athena and Will Hartmann as Liberto have attained later note. Some important characters, including Amore, Valletto and Lucano, are less than well served vocally.
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