S&H Review

MONTEVERDI L'incoronazione di Poppea
Richard Croft & Patricia Schumann etc Concerto Koln/Rene Jacobs
Arthaus 100 108  [150 mins] (PGW) Crotchet

Poppea rarely fails to delight. I have never tired of seeing productions of it in the opera house since the '60s, when Raymond Leppard brought Italian late Renaissance opera to our notice. Of recent note have been those of Welsh National Opera (seen also on TV in short, daily half-hour sections, like a TV 'Soap'; a successful experiment) and in Seen&Heard the outstanding production in ENO's Italian Season 2000.

L'incoronazione di Poppea is an opera that lends itself to a wide range of possible presentations. Its text is remarkably advanced for its time and it is easy to relate to the ruthless self-serving (mirrored in our daily newspaper fare) which sways most of its vividly delineated characters. Sleaze is nothing new. The librettist Giovanni Busenello, one of a group of writers sceptical of the intentions of Europe's rulers, adopted an ironical tone to illustrate his theme of the incompatibility of words and deeds. Sentiment and crude humour are deftly juxtaposed, moving swiftly from comedy to deep emotion. We identify with the grief of the deposed Empress Octavia (Kathleen Kuhlmann), dressed in black from the outset to emphasise her predicament, whilst the gaudily-attired anti-heroine Poppea enlists our fascinated, uneasy collusion as we watch her exploitation of sexual allure to engineer her determined climb to power. Her nurse Arnalta (Curtis Ryam) shares her delight in achieving upward mobility. The philosopher Seneca (Harry Peeters) who does not endorse Nerone's besotted infatuation, is an equivocal figure, respected as a teacher but ridiculed as a double dealer & poseur. He is forced to kill himself after remonstrating with Nerone in one of the most moving scenes, but his death becomes a cause for ribald revelry immediately afterwards. The swift transfer of affections shown by the fickle Ottone (Jeffery Gall), perhaps the most interesting character, who opens the story and is forced to become a hapless cross-dressed, would-be murderer, is especially memorable.

This DVD from the 1993 Schwetzinger Festival is unpretentious and particularly satisfactory for home viewing and listening. The production is mounted on a simple curved stage with screens at the back for entrances and exits. The singers are often seen against a dark background. Colour is used judiciously, strikingly to ensure that the eponymous central character always takes centre stage in our attention. The singers (a large cast) are fine, Richard Croft seemingly at first perhaps a too youthful emperor, but impatient of advice, he shows himself quick to wield power and born to be a ruthless tyrant.

Patricia Schumann provides him with just what he wants and they end the opera with a melting account of the love duet, which strikes an uneasy, ambiguous chord of guilt in pleasure as we watch it. Harry Peters is a dignified Seneca and we easily identify with his pupils as they take their sad farewell. Jeffery Gall is excellent is the key figure of Ottone. Concerto Koln under Rene Jacobs provides orchestral support of just the right style and scale. Photography and sound are fine.

When will the producers of Arthaus DVDs begin to emulate the best of CD producers in providing full information and backgrounds, with careful proof-reading? The inadequate insert book omits Jeffery Gall from the listing! From the screen, you find out that the producer was Michael Hampe. The cover is mostly printed black on dark red, not designed for easy reading. In a good light and with a magnifying glass you can confirm the running time, a healthy 150 mins - why make it nearly invisible? - this desirable DVD deserves better.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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