Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, his last and maybe greatest opera, does not give up its pleasures easily to many listeners, who might find it dry and unyielding compared to the rich musical glories of the late Baroque that we are far more used to, let alone the perfection of Mozart. But like many of the best things, hard won pleasures often end up being the dearest held of all, and Monteverdi offers things which no other composer does. The psychological intensity and commitment to truth is staggering in this work, as is its eschewal of pat conclusions and plot devices for the sake of symmetry and the audience's peace of mind. Unlike the lunacy of many (if not most) 18th century opera plots of a century later, the wonderful libretto is conversational, psychologically driven, nonrepeating and therefore very fast paced, and Monteverdi matches every word with music of the same tone - intense, through composed, intimate and subtle. Nothing is illogical, farfetched, illconsidered or extraneous, though simultaneously almost no aspect of the human condition seems to be left untouched. (One passage that struck me quite forcefully this time, was a proto "Marschallin's Monologue" about ageing and the mystery of time's passing, all condensed into about 3 minutes). A cliché now to say it, but Monteverdi feels very modern.
|Matthew Ward as Arnalta|
|Katherine Crompton and Annie |
Frederiksson as Poppea and Nerone
Any performance of Monteverdi is going to contain a lot of interpretation due to the choices that the folios force upon the performers. Here, the lack of any sustaining instruments in the continuo was a real problem - we had a triple harp, a theorbo and a harpsichord which provided constantly shifting, beautifully evanescent textures but didn't feel fully supportive to the singers or harmony. Much of the music felt a little dessicated as a result, despite moments of compelling intimacy. The string sound was a little thin, though the odd rambunctiousness of the harmony in the more festive elements of the score were nicely brought out, especially by the recorders.
David Hansford made a noble Seneca with a bass voice of impressive depth and alacrity. Tenor Matthew Ward played Arnalta, Poppea's nurse, a delightful piece of comedy casting, and in this setting she becomes a sort of Babushka figure. I kept thinking I was listening to a Marilyn Horne-alike singing in that ultra chest register she had - that is to say that despite the sillyness of it, I still found Arnalta a convincing woman! Bradley Travis gave a touching portrayal of Ottone and Peter Kirk revealed a gorgeous young lyric tenor which made one wish he had a larger part than just Lucano. I instantly recognised Vasili Karpiak's voice again with its throbbing Italianate legato from last term's Figaro - he didn't sound at all incongruent here, and was excellent casting in contrast to the more clipped tones of his fellow soldier Michael Buchard.
Just found this whilst rooting around Youtube which is absolutely stupendous: