WORKS: The Coronation of Poppea (in English)
PERFORMER: Janet Baker, Katherine Pring, Anne Collins, Robert Ferguson, Tom McDonnell; Sadler’s Wells Opera/Raymond Leppard
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 3172(2)
Raymond Leppard made this live recording at the London Coliseum in 1971, having performed Monteverdi’s Poppea for ten years. His exceptional musicality brought major benefits: he infused the rhythms with flexibility and drive; and he elaborated the accompaniments in ways that made the actions and words especially vivid.
Leppard also tried to reach out to contemporary audiences, sensing that early Venetian public operas had as much in common with Broadway as with Baroque etiquette. He reduced the three acts to two, and changed some of the voice-types – Nero (Robert Ferguson) became a tenor rather than a soprano, Ottone (Tom McDonnell) a baritone not an alto, and Poppea’s nurse Arnalta (Anne Collins) a female alto rather than a tenor falsettist.
This sometimes alters the harmonic spacing (as in the final duet), but the singers all give telling performances, helped by Geoffrey Dunn’s excellent English text. Janet Baker’s incredibly sophisticated portrayal of Poppea reveals that the work is as much about power as sex – a useful counterweight to some more recent interpretations.
Leppard’s orchestra is quite large, but then the Coliseum seated 2,300 people in 1971, and Monteverdi’s theatre only about 800. In historical terms, this recording stands as a powerful and attractive monument to those epoch-making clashes between musicality and musicology that kick-started the early music boom to the benefit of all. Anthony Pryer