Monteverdi L'incoronazione di Poppea
Ole Anders Tandberg first presented this gory version of Monteverdi’s last opera in 2009, in the lovely new opera house in Oslo. It relentlessly portrays the leaders of the Roman Empire as violent, sex-mad adolescents: Nero shoots Poppea’s husband dead; the governing God of Love, Amore, carries a teddy bear everywhere; towards the end, Ottavia knifes her nurse and commits suicide; and Nero and Poppea kill everyone else on the stage while singing the final duet. (Deep breath).
None of this is in Monteverdi’s opera or Busenello’s libretto, but in terms of narrative it perhaps doesn’t matter whether someone disappears into exile or is killed. More, it highlights the cycle of savagery that will not end with the coronation of Poppea, a chilling message made icily clear by the spare staging and lighting (captured even more vividly on Blu-ray).
Less happy is the Empress’s loss of dignity (as we are less inclined to feel sympathy for her), and the somewhat flat comic scenes which, in this version, lack all lightness or panache. There is, though, some truly terrific singing here. Birgitte Christensen (Poppea) is an amazingly assured musical presence, who can colour her voice to fit every occasion.
Jacek Laszczkowski (Nero) is expressively menacing and lascivious by turn, though his high sopranista countertenor is not quite up to the vocal power of Christensen. Tim Mead (Ottone), Marita Sølberg (Drusilla) and Magnus Staveland (Lucano) admirably transcend the traditional ‘second rank’ status of their roles. The Norwegian National Opera Orchestra, under Alessandro De Marchi, is lively rather than pristine, with some effective jazzy interludes thrown into the midst of Monteverdi’s music, and the lighting and filming is supportive rather than innovative.