Opera News/ Mai 2005
Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Zürich 2005
ZURICH – L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Opernhaus Zürich, 2/18/05
On February 18, Nikolaus Harnoncourt returned to Monteverdi´s L’Incoronazione di Poppea in Zurich. When he last staged this opera here, his collaborator was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; what they achieved resembled a Rome inspired by the landscape paintings of Jan Breughel — Monteverdi´s contemporary and, like him, an ardent advocate of the chamber-art style of early Baroque. Harnoncourt’s long journey through the operas of Monteverdi led him to Salzburg, where in 1993 Jürgen Flimm replaced Ponnelle (who had died in 1988) as Harnoncourt’s director of choice. The new Harnoncourt/Flimm effort — with designers Annette Murschetz (sets) and Heide Kastler (costumes) — for Zurich looked like the fashionable villa of a Bauhaus architect, built on a rotating platform, which facilitated transitions between the rooms of its two-story floors. The look of the setting may have changed in the past quarter-century, but the amoral, lascivious dealings of its inhabitants remained much the same. These were the citizens of a depraved society that enjoyed its debauches to the fullest, whether they were in Nero’s Rome, Monteverdi’s seicento or Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Harnoncourt and “La Scintilla,“ a group of specialist players from the Zurich Orchestra, created a sound world that was ravishigly beautiful: elegant, sensuous and infinitely refined, this was music-making on the highest level. This also held true of the conductor’s treatment of voices: Harnoncourt gave us crystal-clear enunciation of the words by distinguishing clearly among the three different kinds of declamation: the recitar cantando (the speaking on tones), the cantar recitando (the eloquent singing) and the cantare (the legitimate singing). The rather small Zurich house is ideally suited to these subtle gradings of volume and sound — which in Ottavia’s “Addio, Roma,“ with its minutely shaped pauses between words, transport us straight into heaven.

I have been less than enthusiastic about Flimm’s productions recently, but his new Poppea emerged as a marvel of psychological probing into the souls of its highstrung characters. They were more human than we ever have seen them before. Flimm´s treatment of the three allegorical figures in the prologue as contemporary beings, appearing in different guise throughout the three acts, strengthened the dramaturgical backbone of the story, but I was less happy with his notion of casting Amore as a boy soprano, whose chirping was too feeble compared to the mature voices surrounding him. But what made Flimm’s production so exemplary was its feeling of lush sensuality and eroticism — ecstasy, like a virus, took possession of all of the characters in scenes of bandoned voluptuosness.

A great difference exists bewteen Harnoncourt’s soloists of the 1970s — familiar from Harnoncourt’s Telefunken recording — and their successors. Formerly, there were few genuine Italian voices in Harnoncourt’s Rome — the Swedish Elisabeth Söderström was cast as Nero; the Americans Helen Donath and Cathy Berberian were Poppea and Ottavia, respectively; the Britons Paul Esswood and Philip Langridge sang Otho and Lucan. Their heirs today had an authentic Mediterranean halo about their vocal outpourings. While everybody felt sorry that Vesselina Kasarova had to cancel her first night as Poppea (after six weeks of rehearsals), her replacement, the Colombian Juanita Lascarro, had the necessary sensuousness and physical charms to make her irresistible. Tall, beautiful and incredibly sexy, this Poppea was unstoppable on her strictly calculated way to supreme power as she inflected Monteverdi’s vocal lines with gorgeous, gossamer sweetness. Her voice perfectly matched with that of her Nero, Jonas Kaufmann, the slightly metallic timbre of his mellifluous, pliable tenor ideally reflecting his iron will.

Perhaps the most beautiful voice of all belonged to that of Francesca Provvisionato, whose luminous, haunting mezzo brought her characterization of Ottavia to celestial heights in the deposed queen’s infinitely moving farewell to Rome. Franco Fagioli’s flexible counter-tenor perfectly fitted the wayward chacracter of the deeply frustrated Ottone, and Laszlo Polgár held us all in thrall with the skillful ruminations of his Seneca, splendid and even-scaled in his descent to a resonant low C. The remainder of the cast provided a rich tapestry of individual vocal timbres, but there were two character studies of overwhelming spontaneity and musical power: the high-heeled Arnalta of Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (the tenor who was the much admired Rameau Platée in the famous French productions under Minkowski), a lusty source of life, and Rudolf Schasching, who after his unforgettably gluttunous Iro in Ritorno d´Ulisse, instilled his Lucano with a similar unquenchable thirst for libation – making his duet with Nerone after Seneca´s death an orgy of reveling.

However, if there was anybody to be crowned after these three and one-quarter hours of operatic richness, it should have been Harnoncourt, the legitimate conqueror of the vast Monteverdian cosmos.

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