The Coronation of Poppea

L’incoronazione di Poppea [concert performance] – Opera in a Prologue and Two Acts; Libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello after Tacitus and Suetonius

Poppea/Fortuna – Veronica Cangemi
Ottavia/Virtú – Anne Sofie von Otter
Amore/Valleto – Amel Brahim-Djelloul
Ottone – Lawrence Zazzo
Nerone – Zoryana Kushpler
Arnalta/Mercurio/Console I – Tom Allen
Nutrice/Friend of Seneca I – Dominique Visse
Seneca – Antonio Abete
Pallade/Damigella – Mariana Ortiz-Francés
Drusilla – Carla di Censo
Drusilla Liberto/Soldier II/Tribune I – Enrico Facini
Lucano/Soldier I/Console II/Friend II – Finnur Bjarnason
Littore/Friend III/Tribune II – René Linnenbank

Concerto Vocale
René Jacobs

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 25 October, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

“L’incoronazione di Poppea”, first performed in Venice in 1643, is one of those works of art whose authorship could almost be ascribed to ‘Workshop of’ or ‘Followers of’ Monteverdi, since there’s no autograph score. We have only two manuscripts dating from the decade after Monteverdi’s death, the later of which shows signs of hands other than Monteverdi’s (possibly including his pupil Cavalli); and then there’s the fact that these manuscripts only detail the bare structure of the music, leaving many decisions about instrumentation and other particulars to the performers – okay for Monteverdi’s contemporaries but problematic for the modern interpreter.

So this wonderful concert (really a semi-staged) performance of ‘Poppea’ presented one possible solution, using Jacobs’s own new performing edition of the work, which differs substantially from his earlier version recorded for Harmonia Mundi.

As one of the truly great countertenors of the last 30 years, as a conductor Jacobs is alive to the requirements of the voice and how best to colour the text with the appropriate instrumentation – indeed, this is one of the most impressive aspects of his art. For this performance there were three continuo groups: an organ and harpsichord on the right (in front of the cornetts, trombones and viols); a harpsichord and harp in the centre (in front of a double-bass); and a final harpsichord together with archlute and theorbo on the left (in front of the recorders, violins, bassoon and cello). The theorbo was constantly interchanged with a baroque guitar according to requirements; Jacobs himself stood in front of the middle harpsichord and played continuo for soloists performing centre-stage.

This instrumental configuration was placed totally at the service of the singers, who in turn subordinated themselves utterly to the text of the narrative. Recitatives, arias, duets and trios took on Titianesque colours and contrasts; the purely instrumental pieces also made the most of antiphonal exchanges between the lower (right) and higher (left) instruments. Associations were fully exploited – brass for royalty and the Gods, plucked instruments and organ for moments of tenderness or sorrow; recorders and pizzicato strings for the more rustic or comic episodes; and for the drama, every conceivable combination of the above.

Of the singers themselves, all were impeccable, even Antonio Abete, who, we were told beforehand, was labouring under a throat infection. His Seneca was full of tragic nobility, and the scene where Mercury tells of his impending death was genuinely moving. Tom Allen and Dominique Visse enjoyed camping it up as Poppea and Octavia’s nurses respectively (Allen rejoiced in lurid scarves and feathers while Visse donned high heels). Veronica Cangemi was superb as Poppea: her tone was never forced, her diction never muddied by Monteverdi’s sometimes-florid writing. Soprano Zoryana Kushpler was easily her equal, and the final love duet between the two was sublime. Lawrence Zazzo was vigorous and characterful as Ottone, despite his voice lacking the depth and colour displayed by Visse’s. Anne Sofie von Otter was stunning as the wronged queen, Ottavia – her valedictory “Addio Roma”, on the eve of her banishment, was heart-rending.

So, a very convincing solution indeed to the interpretation of Monteverdi’s (and others’) final masterpiece and another triumph for René Jacobs, who can’t seem to do a thing wrong at the moment.

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