Saturday, December 14, 2013

Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, or: A curse in disguise

Until recently there were two ways to enjoy an opera: going to the theatre to watch a live performance or listening to an opera on disc. With the introduction of the DVD - originally meant for movies - a whole new dimension opened for opera and its lovers. For the first time one could actually see and hear an opera at home as it was - or could have been - performed at the theatre. However, opera productions on DVD turn out to be a mixed blessing, and sometimes even a curse in disguise. As I have written before I am not a great opera lover. As a reviewer I sometimes have to sit through a whole performance on DVD. That isn't always a pleasant experience, and some performances don't exactly help me to overcome my rather negative attitude towards opera.

That is the case, for instance, with a recent release of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea by Virgin Classics, under the musical direction of Emmanuelle Haïm. It is the recording of a live performance in the Opera in Lille. It has always been a mystery to me why conductors insist on using period instruments while at the same time completely ignoring everything that is known about the way operas were performed in the baroque era. The staging, the acting, the costumes, the stage-properties - it was all very different from what is common use nowadays. Research into these matters has resulted in some very interesting and convincing staged performances, for instance by Benjamin Lazar and Sigrid T'Hooft. Ms Haïm seems not to be interested in these matters; her stage-director Jean-François Sivadier ignores everything that has been achieved in this department. This is a performance for a present-day audience which is not that interested in historical performance practice.

It is rather odd that this production was released by Virgin Classics, as only three years ago they released the same opera on DVD in a staged performance under the musical direction of William Christie. He and his stage director, Pier Luigi Pizzi, didn't opt for a historical approach either. However, their performance is at least decent and tasteful. The stage is not that large which gives the whole performance a kind of intimacy which is well reflected by the performance itself. The subject of this opera and the way is has been worked out probably gives little opportunity for real subtlety. After all, there is hardly a truly decent character around. The main protagonists are pretty repulsive, and the famous closing duet is only hiding the immorality and the emptiness of the two main characters, Nero and Poppea. Even so, Christie's performance is a marvel of good taste in comparison with Haïm's production. She and the stage director apparently thought it necessary to blow up everything that is disgusting in the development of the story. The scene in which Nero celebrates the death of Seneca is one of the worst examples.

Interestingly these two productions have something in common. Max Emanuel Cencic who took the role of Ottone in Christie's performance, plays Nero in the production by Haïm. He portrays both characters pretty convincingly. His voice isn't that strong, and that suits the role of Ottone rather well. In the role of Nero his rudeness comes off well; vocally he seems to be miscast, tough. His tessitura seems to be too limited; in the upper range he forces himself and he starts to shout. Stylistically he is more at home in 18th century opera, although his incessant vibrato isn't appropriate there either. In comparison Philippe Jaroussky does better, although he also has some trouble with the top notes. Stylistically he is clearly ahead of Cencic: his ornamentation is very natural and his singing more flexible and just nicer to the ear. Danielle de Niese portrays Poppea better than Sonya Yoncheva who makes little impression, but De Niese's singing shows that she isn't really acquainted with the style of Monteverdi's time. That goes, by the way, for most singers in both productions. It is often the smaller roles which are stylistically most feasible. In Haïm's production there is at least one other miscast: Paul Whelan sings the role of Seneca. I am not that impressed by his singing and the way he portrays his role, but he is also far too young to give this role any credibility. The fact that Haïm adds percussion to the ensemble - Christie does not - only underlines her intention to present Monteverdi's opera for a modern audience which is not really interested in the composer's intentions and the conventions of his time.

On balance Christie's performance is much to be preferred over Haïm's. Even so, it is quite depressing that both conductors chose to ignore the result of research in regard to the way operas were performed in the baroque era. Equally depressing is that they obviously didn't strictly select the singers on the basis of their commandment of the style of singing in Monteverdi's time.

Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea

Sonya Yoncheva (Poppea), Max Emanuel Cencic (Nerone), Ann Hallenberg (Ottavia), Tim Mead (Ottone), Paul Whelan (Seneca), Amel Brahim-Djelloul (Drusilla), Rachid Ben Abdeslam (Nutrice, Un famigliare di Seneca), Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (Arnalta), Anna Wall (Fortuna, Venere, Pallade), Khatouna Gadelia (Virtù, Valletto), Camille Poul (Amore, Damigella), Aimery Lefèvre (Mercurio, Console), Patrick Schramm (Un famigliare di Seneca, Littore), Mathias Vidal (Soldato, Un famigliare di Seneca, Lucano), Nicholas Mulroy (Tribuno) Le Concert d'Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm; stage director: Jean-François Sivadier
Recorded March 2012, Lille, Opéra
Virgin Classics 928991 9 (2 DVDs; 2.58')

Danielle de Niese (Poppea), Philippe Jaroussky (Nerone), Anna Bonitatibus (Ottavia), Max Emanuel Cencic (Ottone), Antonio Abete (Seneca), Ana Quintans (Drusilla), Claire Debono (Fortuna, Pallade, Venere), Katherine Watson (Virtù, Damigella), Hanna Bayodi-Hirt (Amore), Suzana Ograjensek (Valletto), José Lemos (Nutrice, Un famigliare di Seneca), Robert Burt (Arnalta), Mathias Vidal (Lucano), Andreas Wolf (Mercurio, Littore Tribuno, Un famigliare di Seneca), Damian Whiteley (Un famigliare di Seneca), Juan Sancho (Tribuno, Console, Un famigliare di Seneca), David Webb (Tribuno, Console)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie; stage director: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Recorded May 2010, Madrid, Teatro Real
Virgin Classics 07095191 (2 DVDs; 3.00')