Evening Standard (London), Mar 4, 2005
Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea, London 2005
Style to boost the substance
L'incoronazione de Poppea/Zurich Opera Royal Festival Hall
ALL semi-staged opera performances require some imagination from audiences.

Some require a great deal. One such was Zurich Opera's presentation of Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea at the Royal Festival Hall.

For this extra-minimal staging, the singers were ranged on tiered platforms behind the orchestra. Since all were wearing concert dress, the high tenor playing the part of Poppea's nurse, Arnalta (Jean-Paul FouchEcourt) had to rely on his unusual voice to project the character. Similarly, when Ottone (countertenor Franco Fagioli) borrowed his female admirer's clothes as a disguise for his assassination attempt on Poppea, our imaginations had to work overtime to relish the comic absurdity of the situation.

Acting and gestures were intermittent, depending on the individual singer's whim. The question "should we touch?" hung persistently in the air, right up to the last moments of the rapturous final duet for Poppea and Nerone.

In these days of specialisation, it is to the credit of Zurich Opera that it can mount such a stylish performance of Monteverdi's final score. Many of the singers were company ensemble members, though there were some distinguished guests, most notably Vesselina Kasarova, in a class of her own as a superbly nuanced Poppea.

Jonas Kaufmann managed to balance ardour with the demands of style in the role of Nerone.

Fouchécourt did his best to inject some theatre into the whole thing, but was also rather touching as he invoked Love to watch over his mistress, accompanied by muted strings and plucked continuo in one of the opera's most gorgeous numbers.

Masterminding the operation was Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conducting his own edition of the work. His direction bore the characteristic hallmarks of bite and urgency, but there was also an admirable sense of continuity which went some way towards compensating for the lack of dramatic values.

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