Monteverdi, Claudio


PoppeaClaudio Monteverdi - L’incoronazione di Poppea

Gran Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2009 | Harry Bicket, David Alden, Miah Persson, Sarah Connolly, Jordi Domenèch, Franz-Josef Selig, Maite Beaumont, Ruth Rosique, Dominique Visse, Guy de Mey, William Berger, Judith van Wanroij, Francisco Vas, Josep Miquel Ramón, Marisa Martins, Olatz Saitua | Opus Arte

As if it’s not enough to be attributed with inventing opera itself – the first through-composed work being L’Orfeo in 1607 – Monteverdi advanced the artform even further with his last work, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), written at the age of 76. Previously operas were based only on classic mythological subjects – opera being a 17th century attempt to return to the ideals of Ancient Greek drama, which was then believed to have had a musical form – but, having moved into public theatres, and no longer a diversion for royalty and nobility, L’incoronazione di Poppea would be the first opera to deal with a historical subject and real people. The composer (there is still uncertainty about the authorship of the work, some believing that parts of the work at least may have been written by one of Monteverdi’s students) takes full advantage of this fact, revelling in the possibilities of extending the qualities associated with the musical-dramatic form to show less elevated and more down-to-earth human behaviour.

Directing Monteverdi’s final opera for the Liceu in Barcelona in 2009, David Alden emphasises this aspect in his colourful, modernised production (first produced in Munich in 1997) which certainly takes liberties with the characters and the setting to draw out the bawdiness and humour that is undoubtedly a part of the work, while Harry Bicket’s sensitive conducting of the Liceu’s Baroque orchestra finds the delicacy and sensitivity that it also part of the make-up of the human historical figures caught up in the drama of Nero’s reign in Rome around AD72. It’s a tricky proposition not only to achieve that magnificent balance, but also to find a way to make a 350 year-old work as vital and meaningful to a modern audience as it would have been to its original intended public. There’s no one right way to this, but it helps if you can achieve some balance between the traditional and the modern that captures the spirit of the work.

For Monteverdi, the Prologue to the opera sets out this clash between classicism and modernity in his new approach to representing historical drama in opera, where the typically allegorical figures of Virtue and Fortune battle it out for supremacy only to concede that it’s Love that holds greater sway in human affairs. In this story of revenge, infidelity, murder, lies and deceit, Virtue really doesn’t get a look in. Within this framework, away from the classical allusions to gods and mythological figures, Monteverdi finds a whole new wealth of emotions and personalities – most of them not entirely noble or honourable – to be explored through his innovative musical approach to continuo instrumentation, recitative and arioso. Busenello’s libretto also revels in the irreverence of the satire of these historical figures and the scandalous behaviour depicted, and, in its own way, Alden’s production taps into this for its rich vein of humour and presents it in a way which may be more meaningful to a modern audience.

Poppea

If that approach at times resembles that of a Carry On film, that’s perhaps not as inappropriate as it sounds for this particular work. There is a great deal of sauciness in how Monteverdi and Busenello treat the scandalous behaviour of Nero’s infidelities and Poppea’s scheming. There is real passion in the seductive lines in which Nero and the music describe the hold that Poppea has over him, and there is some suggestiveness and homoeroticism in Nero and Lucan’s drunken celebration at having overthrown the stabilising influence of Seneca, but the activities of the Emperor and his affair with Poppea seems to promote a general licentiousness and scheming elsewhere among their associates. Brought together in this way, if Drusilla were to ask Ottone “Is that an axe in your trousers or are you just pleased to see me?”, or Nero to exclaim, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in f’ me!”, it wouldn’t be any more out of place than what is actually suggested there in the music and the libretto itself.

That’s essentially how Alden approaches this aspect of the work, using incongruity to play up the humour in the situation. Hence we have Roman soldiers lolling about on a red leather sofa-bed, much play on the cross-dressing and travesti roles (Nero is usually played by a female soprano, as it is here, but it can be done with a tenor), and obvious visual jokes such as the page Valletto being dressed as an old-fashioned hotel pageboy from 1930s movies, and the Nurse dressed in – yes, you guessed it – a medical uniform. The production creates a recognisable environment then for the modern viewer to relate to, one that is attractively designed with plenty of variety in the arrangements, beautifully lit and coloured, witty, ironic and referential without being overly-clever, keeping the spirit of that aspect of the work intact.

There is however much more to L’incoronazione di Poppea than that and the directorial approach is not quite so successful when it comes to approaching the more lyrical qualities of the work. This is best demonstrated by Seneca’s death scene, which should be one of the most moving moments in the whole opera, but it fails to strike the right tone here. Musically, it’s perfect. Harry Bicket’s arrangement and Franz-Josef Selig’s bass have the right measure of gravity, nobility and tragedy, but the staging and the curiously dressed pupils of the philosopher work against the deeper implications that this event is to have on the subsequent course of events. Much of the balance in the production is left then to Bicket and the Baroque orchestra of the Liceu to pick up and, indeed, they do so brilliantly. It’s a sparser arrangement that doesn’t have the same rhythmic verve as the 1993 René Jacobs recording (on Arthaus DVD) that I am familiar with, but every note of the sparingly used chitarrone and harpsichord continuo is beautifully weighed and balanced, all the more to highlight the flute, harp and other affetto instrumentation that gives colour to the characters and emotions through their arias.

Poppea

The emotion and verve of the singing and acting performances also makes up for the slight lack of dynamic in the staging. Miah Persson is terrific as Poppea – much more animated and lyrical here than in anything else I’ve heard her sing (Britten and Stravinsky) – and Sarah Connolly is a fine impassioned Nero, not essentially evil, but in thrall to his passions and power. Jordi Domenèch is a little light as the countertenor Ottone, but the variety of his tone balances the other singers well. Maite Beaumont is outstanding as Ottavia and Franz-Josef Selig, as mentioned earlier, suitably dignified as Seneca. The real highlight of this production however is Dominique Visse, who is also the Nutrice in the above mentioned René Jacobs version, but here he takes on the contralto roles of the Nurse and Arnalta, fully entering into the spirit of Alden’s production. It’s the variety of singing parts that is one of the great qualities of L’incoronazione di Poppea and the casting here is superbly balanced in this respect.

Just as important, in this context, is the quality of the recording, and this release is absolutely stunning to look at and listen to in High Definition. There is a beautiful clarity to the singing and the instrumentation with a wonderful sense of ambience. This is sheer perfection as far as technical specifications go and, as far as this production is concerned, it brings out all the qualities of an extraordinary work of early opera. Extras on the DVD and Blu-ray consist only of a Cast Gallery and a narrated Synopsis, while an essay in the booklet takes a closer look at aspects of David Alden’s production. The subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Catalan.

OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L’Orfeo

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2009 | Rinaldo Alessandrini, Robert Wilson, Georg Nigl, Roberta Invernizzi, Sara Mingardo, Luigi de Donato, Raffaella Milanesi | Opus Arte

The minimalist staging of Robert Wilson’s opera productions is not something that is to everyone’s taste, but it is certainly unique and idiosyncratic, and no matter how familiar you are with a particular opera, you can be sure that Wilson’s stage direction will provide a new way of looking at a piece and bring out elements or propose ideas that you might never have considered before. It is however not suited to every kind of opera. His production for Aida several years ago at the Royal Opera House was visually striking in its beauty and in the wondrous and carefully considered colour-coded light schemes, but the static nature of the production simply sucked the life out of one particular opera that merits a slightly more vibrant approach, if not necessarily always quite as flamboyant as Zeffirelli’s.

On the other hand, the stripped-down staging works better, it seems to me, when applied to more abstract subjects or at least the more archetypal matters of Greek mythology in opera seria and Baroque opera. Wilson’s work for the Paris Châtelet productions of Alceste and Orphée et Eurydice, for example, is appropriate and perfectly in accordance with Gluck’s reforming of over-elaborate and long-winded opera. The same should apply, one would think, to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the work that is considered the first opera proper - first performed in Mantua in 1607 - and, for many, the model to which opera should aspire. All the huge archetypes are there in its mythological subject - Heaven and Hades, with Eros, Fate, Hope and, most significantly, Music itself personified and indeed the main narrative force who introduces and tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as the means by which the opera expresses itself.

This is the kind of material that is perfect for Robert Wilson’s interpretations, and all the familiar characteristics of his approach are here in this production for La Scala in 2009 - static figures making strange poses with enigmatic hand movements, stage props reduced to geometric shapes, the colour scheme a limited palette of greys, pale blues and pale green. In contrast to his non-specific approach to Orphée et Eurydice, L’Orfeo is practically period - in the period of Monteverdi, that is - inspired by Titian’s Venus with Cupid and an Organist (1548), with Thrace a Renaissance version of the Garden of Eden, by way perhaps of Gainsborough. On a first viewing, I’m not convinced that such a staging brings anything new from Monteverdi’s famous opera this time, but it is interesting and worth considering.

As for the opera and its performance, well, L’Orfeo is a masterpiece that does indeed wield a heavy influence over the artform, or for at least a hundred and fifty years afterwards. It’s a celebration of man’s ability, intellect and ingenuity, taming nature and the seas, speaking with the voice of the Gods through music and, through Orpheus, even challenging Death itself through his singing and its expression of the finest human passions and sentiments. It’s a worthy subject for what is generally considered the first opera - an artform that would unite so many artistic qualities, not least of which is music and singing. Monteverdi’s opera accordingly lives up to the high standards it sets.

L’Orfeo is more detailed in its scoring and specification of instruments than Monteverdi’s final opera Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria, for example, but how it is performed is highly interpretative nonetheless. Early music specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini’s conducting of the opera of La Scala is therefore not for me to criticise, but I would find it hard to find any serious fault with it other than the actual sound mix not quite having the transparency of other versions I’ve heard - notably the Pierre Audi 1997 recording for DVD at the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. I would however state a preference for John Mark Ainsley’s lyrical Orpheus in that version over the rather deeper tenor of Georg Nigl. The contrasts and differences should be appreciated however, as it is through them that new thoughts and ideas still arise out of an opera that is now over 400 years old - and on that basis, this is a fine production.

The quality of the presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray is as good as you would expect, with a clear 16:9 High Definition transfer, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The only extras on the disc however are a Cast Gallery and an Illustrated Synopsis. The thin booklet presents some background on the history of the opera, but there is no information at all on the production itself.

OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L’Orfeo

De Nederlandse Opera, 1997 | Pierre Audi, Stephen Stubbs, John Mark Ainsley, Juanita Lascarro | Opus Arte

It’s appropriate that what is often considered the first opera - or at least the first opera that we can recognise as being more closely associated with the form of the opera as it is widely known today - is a composition in praise of Orpheus and his golden lyre. Written in 1607, bringing together music and drama into an integrated form for the first time, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo seems to delight in the very essence of the resultant new artform that has been created, the alchemy of music, drama and exquisite singing achieving an almost transcendentally beautiful balance and harmony.

Dealing moreover with the legendary subject of Orpheus, Monteverdi’s opera finds a perfect subject to demonstrate the power of the artform, one that can take in subjects as large as life, death, love and art and truly do justice to their importance in the lives of ordinary people. Set in the meadows, hills and woodlands of Thrace, life is simple but hard for the workers in the fields, but Orpheus through his music is able to transform the misery of the people into a thing of beauty. But he “who once made sighs his food and tears his drink”, has since discovered happiness in his love for Eurydice. The happiness is short-lived however, as Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Grief-stricken, Orpheus descends to the underworld, to bargain with Charon, cross the River Styx and claim her back from Hades for the living.

A mythological subject, there is poetry and wisdom scattered throughout the gorgeous libretto, warning mortals not to “put your faith in fleeting fragile joy that is so soon gone” observing how often in life “we are lifted high only to be cast down”. The music (the story appropriately is introduced by the muse Music herself) and the singing all combining to give the subject and tragedy the necessary emotional depth. The 1997 production recorded here makes good use of the vast stage of the Muziektheater in Amsterdam, Pierre Audi’s staging at the same time simple but effective. The tone of the period instruments and singing are impeccable, John Mark Ainsley’s voice conveying the warmth, lyricism, charm and beauty that you would expect Orpheus to possess.

Released on DVD by Opus Arte as a 2-disc set, the 16:9 enhanced image is excellent, even in the dim lighting showing detail only slightly less impressive than a HD presentation. There are two audio tracks. The DTS 5.1 is a little echoing, although it does give the opera an appropriate cathedral quality, but the PCM stereo track seems to my ears to have much better depth and clarity. Neither can do much about the sometimes heavy clumping that is made by figures striding across the stage, but this is a minor irritation. The extras are brief but useful, including a Synopsis and a 16 minute introduction that looks behind the scenes at the production and the instruments used.