FINANCIAL TIMES, February 22 2005
By Shirley Apthorp
Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Zürich 2005
The early music movement has come a long way since the 1970s. Or has it? Zurich Opera's new L'incoronazione di Poppea invites comparisons. This opera house's Monteverdi cycle three decades ago changed the way the world thought about the composer. Now it's time for the remake. Same conductor, different directors. Klaus-Michael Grüber staged a spare, emotionalIl ritorno d'Ulisse in patria three years ago. For Poppea, it's Jürgen Flimm's turn.

Certainly nobody could accuse Nikolaus Harnoncourt of staying the same. Almost all his tempi have changed since the 1970s, largely in favour of the text. Now what we hear is pure Dramma per musica, intensely psychological, profoundly expressive. Every phrase is illustrative, laden with meaning. Busenello's tale is shockingly amoral, and Harnoncourt is out to make sure that we notice Monteverdi's take on it.

Flimm gives us pure soap opera, updating the action to a slick 1970s Italian villa (sets: Annette Murschetz), in indiscriminately modern costumes (Heide Kastler). After their prologue, Fortuna, Virtù andAmore remain, reappearing in various disguises to watch or steer the action. Allegorical espionage, to help us remember what the opera is about. It's intellectually unambitious and undeniably entertaining.

Juanita Lascarro leapt into the breach left by Vesselina Kassarova's sudden indisposition to give us a Poppea of compelling erotic allure. As her vanquished rival, Ottavia, Francesca Provvisionato is a picture of dissolute disillusionment, with enough fire left in her for a devastating final aria. Jonas Kaufmann makes a magnificently narcissistic Nero, looking and sounding effortlessly gorgeous. László Polgár plays Seneca as Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard, senior but flawed, vocally absolutely in command. Smaller roles are solidly cast, although the opening night had an under-rehearsed feel. The house baroque orchestra, La Scintilla, normally excellent, recalled the 1970s by sounding as if some players were still coming to terms with their instruments. We were told that a 'flu epidemic was doing the rounds. Next time, it should do them elsewhere.

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