Cruel, Farcical L’Incoronazione

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

I could not take my eyes or ears off this production and I suspect you will not be able to either. David Alden directs on sets by Paul Steinberg with costumes by Buki Shiff, and all are of one mind: there is comedy underneath cruelty and vice-versa, and ancient Rome—or in this production, modern somewhere—has many classes of people involved in one-another’s lives. I’d guess that the 1960s and ‘70s is the physical template: there’s an almost omni-present red leatherette couch and wall-portrait of Nerone; a desk (under which Drusilla hides at one point); chandeliers in-and-out for pompous moments; a streetlamp when Ottone is outside; and at the end, a sort-of psychedelic, Vasarely-like series of patterns for both floor and walls that otherwise have been shiny and black.

Nero is always in long, dark, regal cape (except for white for the coronation); Poppea is in movie-star-like gowns except when she’s in black leather wearing a Medusa-wig; Arnalta is over-dressed in total, garish, drag-kitsch; and Ottavia’s Nurse clearly works for the Red Cross. Ottavia and Seneca are in dignified black, while Seneca’s students are dressed in powder-blue, schoolboy shorts. Fortune is vain and Virtue is not only pregnant but half-crippled, and Cupid sits on top of a revolving door that Poppea uses a great deal; Ottone can’t figure out how it works. The Tribunals at the end wear red clown-noses. Colors are prime and Pat Collins’ lighting sets each scene even before the music begins. There’s nothing in the settings that is lovely or comfortable—it’s a hard world, filled with vice, competition, lechery—intercut with farcical behavior. It may sound a bit much, but it’s clear and clean, if perhaps trying too hard for laughs. (There is another new, riveting DVD from the Norwegian Opera on Euroarts that treats the story as a veritable sex-obsessed bloodbath; Alden makes more sense.)

Of course this would all be academic if the performance was not stellar, but it is. Sarah Connolly is the go-to mezzo for Nerone these days (I prefer a countertenor). She’s a tall woman with big features and a grand voice filled with colors. As played here, Nerone is capable of wild, unexpected violent flare-ups; otherwise he is mostly petulant and Poppea has to work hard to seduce him (she actually climbs the wall at one point). There is no undercurrent (or other current) of Nerone’s homosexuality in this production. Miah Persson is a perfect Poppea—gorgeous, tonally alluring, in touch with Baroque decoration (as is the entire cast), and she and Connolly blend beautifully.

Franz-Josef Selig’s Seneca is not seen as a figure of ridicule; he is the picture of dignity, even if his students look like silly school boys. Selig’s voice has the gravitas and beauty for the role. Both nurses are sung by countertenor Dominique Visse, offering bizarre vocalism and startlingly campy characterizations—almost too much, but within Alden’s context. Maite Beaumont should be more famous. Hers is a creamy mezzo full of sympathy, and her Ottavia, treated as a noble (and not a nagging bore, as is sometimes the case), is a stunning portrayal. Jordi Domenech’s Ottone is a weak spot—his countertenor voice lacks focus. Judith Van Wanroij’s Damigella and Virtue are fine depictions; William Berger’s Valletto, despite being costumed poorly, is very good. Ruth Rosique’s confused Drusilla looks like a refugee from a Broadway musical.

Harry Bicket leads the Liceu’s “Baroque Orchestra” (who knew they had one?)—which includes a good number of players, including winds, smaller than Harnoncourt’s and larger than Hickox’s—with impeccable style, changing moods on a dime (as does the opera). Not being a mind-reader, I’d merely guess that he would have played some of the “comic” scenes less laughably, but given the production, that might have been jarring. Nonetheless, there’s never a discordant or dull note here. The picture and sound are superb; subtitles are available in all major European languages as well as Catalan.

The Harnoncourt on DG (with a tenor Nerone) remains a knockout and makes a great sound; Maria Ewing still takes the cake for lust on Kultur from Glyndebourne in a non HIP performance under Raymond Leppard; and you’d better like blood to appreciate the Norwegian Opera production mentioned above. This one, from Barcelona, may be the ideal mid-ground, even if it lacks some of the extremes in this “extreme” work that highlights the competition.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one; Harnoncourt (DG)


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