The Telegraph, 10/03/2005
By Rupert Christiansen
Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea, London 2005
A coronation fit for a queen
Zurich Opera's one-night stands at the Festival Hall have given enormous pleasure over the past few years, reminding Londoners of the merits of an old-fashioned ensemble - what ENO should be and isn't.

Incidentally, who foots the bill for these visits? No munificent gnome is credited in the programme, but the operation must cost a fortune.

And it's worth every penny. This performance of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea proved as richly absorbing and rewarding as last summer's Meistersinger. It was conducted, in his own edition, by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who takes a more romantic view of the stylistic possiblities than he did 30 years ago. The orchestration is sumptuous, tempos are expansive, the phrasing allows portamento, and big, opera-house voices fill the cast.

The instrumentalists were drawn from the regular opera orchestra; some of their playing was more enthusiastic than expert, but the glitches didn't matter in the context of such a sensual, beautiful interpretation, a fascinating contrast to the leaner, more driven approach taken by René Jacobs at the Barbican last October.

There can rarely have been a more physically attractive Nerone and Poppea than Jonas Kaufmann and Vesselina Kasarova, and they sounded as good as they looked. Kaufmann sang with unfailing musicality, but also managed to suggest the emperor's tyrannical paranoia; Kasarova wielded her vibrant mezzo-soprano to paint a vivid picture of opera's Becky Sharp.

As the spurned wife Ottavia, Francesca Provvisionato went into exile with heart-tugging intensity, and the magnificent Laszlo Polgar laid down his life as Seneca with grave nobility. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt's Arnalta was a brilliant comic turn, Elsewhere there were some voices that were less than ideally clean and polished, but none that was less than totally involved.

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