When Claudio Monteverdi and his librettist, Gian Francesco Busenello, created “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” around 1640 there were as yet no codified operatic traditions or conventions. The field remained open for cultivation and invention. Anything went. And this Italian twosome went about their task with a degree of emotional veracity that was not to be found again in opera until our own century.
“L’Incoronazione di Poppea” is about lust--of the flesh and for political power. It deals specifically with the ambitious, unprincipled Poppea’s successful attempt, against tremendous odds, to share the throne of Rome with the equally debased Nero. In the world of corruption and deceit in which Busenello deals, taking his plot from historical sources, evil wins out at every turn.
It is a work of wrenching dramatic force couched in a musical idiom that could strike ears attuned only to later, lyric forms of opera as being as alien as anything written last week. Especially so in a new, optimally “authentic” recorded edition (Virgin Classics 90775, 3 CDs).
Conductor Richard Hickox, who showed us how accessible early opera could be with his performances of Handel’s “Alcina” for Los Angeles Music Center Opera during its inaugural season, goes much further into the dark heart of the lyric muse with “Poppea.”
His edition is instrumentally spare, hardly going beyond what the composer himself set down in what is generally regarded as a form of orchestrational shorthand. Most often we hear a singer backed only by continuo instruments.
To a sympathetic ear, there can be as much dramatic force in Monteverdi’s quasi-declamation as in all the heroic, anguished barking of Wagner’s “Ring"--given the presence of Arleen Auger as the Poppea. Auger conveys Poppea’s power over Nero in slight, devastatingly effective inflections of dynamics and color: the vocal equivalents of an inclination of the head, an arched eyebrow or a pout. Her diction is splendidly pointed, the voice effortlessly produced and frighteningly virginal when the emotions it expresses are most base.
Auger, Hickox and his superb City of London Baroque Sinfonia make this “Poppea” a revelatory listening experience without getting all the help they deserve.
Mezzo Della Jones (who was also in the Los Angeles “Alcina” with Auger) gives us more of Nero’s passion than we need, with much of her singing shrill and unmusical. Linda Hirst as Ottavia, Nero’s abandoned empress and potentially the most sympathetic character in the opera, is unsteady and subject to pitch problems, and James Bowman is a dramatic cipher as Poppea’s betrayed husband.
But Gregory Reinhart as the not-so-noble Seneca is a powerful vocal and dramatic presence in what can, in lesser hands, be the prototype of every tedious toga-bass part in later Italian opera.
Whatever one’s misgivings, this “Poppea” is mandatory listening for anyone interested in opera’s astonishingly mature youth. And for the presence of Arleen Auger.
By the 1720s opera had been become a popular, theatrical art, far removed from the ducal salons where Monteverdi’s works were performed. Even in the best hands--Handel’s--the wildest improbabilities, indeed the whole paraphernalia of mythology, replaced the realistic, timeless drama of “Poppea.”
Although Handel was saddled with his share of atrocious librettos, his melodic invention and gift for characterization saved the opera from its plot.
In “Flavio” (1723), however, Handel and librettist Nicola Haym mocked the very conventions they supposedly honored. Each of the “noble” characters is at one point or another sent up.
Like most of Handel’s stage works, its day will come--if performed with anything resembling the expertise and wit that went into this first complete recording (Harmonia Mundi 901312/13, 2 CDs).
Rene Jacobs, a distinguished Handel singer himself, conducts the excellent Swiss Ensemble 415 (the pitch at which they play) and a stylish cast including countertenors Jeffrey Gall and Derek Lee Ragin, soprano Lena Lootens and, especially, a lush-voiced, sexy, agile mezzo named Bernarda Fink.
“Giulio Cesare,” which immediately followed the much shorter “Flavio” in Handel’s operatic canon and which is in need of an up-to-date recording, appears in a modern-instrument version on the Italian Nuova Era label (6863/65, 3 CDs).
Despite the presence of some decent singers in what is purportedly a studio recording (Nuova Era specializes in live- performance releases), coordination between voices and orchestra is so poor that in the opening aria, Martine Dupuy’s Caesar and conductor Marcello Panni’s instrumentalists are as far as a measure apart. Things improve thereafter, but never sufficiently to merit the serious listener’s attention.