Monteverdi: L’incoronazione di Poppea

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Monteverdi
LABELS: Archiv
WORKS: L’incoronazione di Poppea
PERFORMER: Sylvia McNair, Anne Sofie von Otter, Dana Hanchard, Michael Chance; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner


Monteverdi’s last opera is extremely elusive. Only skeleton scores survive, which are unclear about performing forces and lacking substantial parts of the music. It is even questionable that Monteverdi wrote it all. Gardiner steers a middle course, between performing only what’s fully authenticated, and wholesale speculative elaboration. With single strings (over slightly weighty violone) to play Peter Holman’s stylishly reconstructed ritornelli, all the musical emphasis and dramatic focus falls on the voices. And a fine team they are: Poppea (McNair) scheming and ravishingly seductive, yet endearingly innocent as she falls into a near-fatal sleep; Nero, contralto (Hanchard) rather than countertenor, breathless after a night of passion yet ruthless, petulant – and a touch gritty – in anger with a majestically sonorous Seneca (Francesco Ellero d’Artegna); Ottavia (von Otter) driven to the verge of madness, from hysterical outburst to halting acceptance of her fate. There’s not a single weakness among the rest of the cast. Gardiner controls the pace subtly, often by sustaining a steady underlying pulse as the drama slips almost imperceptibly from recitative to air and back again, within the sometimes noisy realism of this live performance. The result is a triumphant union of scholarship and imagination with musical and dramatic intuition. George Pratt


Review originally published July 1996