Classical Source
William Yeoman
Monteverdi: L'Incoronazione di Poppea, London 2005
The Coronation of Poppea – Harnoncourt
Reviewing René Jacobs’s version of this same work (as presented at the Barbican Hall in a semi-staged production) in October of last year, I wrote about the skeletal form of the extant manuscripts and that there are therefore as many potential realisations as there are performers. Jacobs’s own is particularly imaginative and was well-executed on the night; Harnoncourt’s presents a different but no less elegant solution to the problem of how best to present this masterpiece.

The most significant difference between the two approaches can be simply stated. Jacobs is the greater colourist: he favours a preponderance of wind instruments and arranges his orchestra in terms of range (lower instruments on the right, higher on the left) around three continuo groups (left, right and centre), forming ‘mixed consorts’ of varying timbres. Harnoncourt is more analytical: there is a definite string bias (the size of the string section approaching that of a modern chamber orchestra) and the colours are carefully separated by forming an arc made up of (from left to right) double basses, violins, violas, cellos, one dulcian (an early version of the bassoon), two shawms (ditto of the oboe) and two recorder players behind whom sit two trumpeters. A chamber organ is situated behind the winds; two harpsichords sit at opposite ends of the stage; the centre (around Harnoncourt himself) is occupied by two harpists and two theorbo players (one of whom, as is the case with Jacobs, doubles as a guitarist). Paradoxically, Harnoncourt showed more willingness than Jacobs to mix the continuo instruments according to the dramatic context (indeed this was one of the most striking aspects of the performance – orchestrating sensitively according to the text), and quite often both harpsichords would simultaneously realise a bass part, resulting in a much richer texture and attractive spatial sonority.

A paradox, too, that despite Jacobs being a singer himself, this performance was both vocally and dramatically superior to that given by Concerto Vocale. Whether due to a greater breadth of operatic experience across all periods or willingness on Harnoncourt’s part to adapt authentic performance practice to the exigencies of contemporary requirements, Zürich Opera delivered what was for me an unforgettable musical experience. All the principals were near-flawless: Vesselina Kasarova’s Poppea and Jonas Kaufmann’s Nerone (a tenor in contrast to Zoryana Kushpler’s soprano for Jacobs) were perfectly matched – witness the sheer sensual beauty of the final love duet (coloured by alto recorders and harp); Francesca Provvisionato’s soprano-ish mezzo made a fragile yet vindictive Ottavia (although her “Addio” was perhaps a little overdone); Franco Fagioli’s Ottone had a real heroic edge thanks to a particularly rich countertenor voice; László Polgár was magnificent, playing Seneca with gentle pathos – his is an expansive stage presence capable of great subtlety and with a bass to match (it was he who got the greatest cheer from the audience at the end).

Mention must also be made of high tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Poppea’s nurse Arnalta – her final arrogant aria, perfectly accompanied by mocking shawms and dulcian, in which she fantasises about his condescension towards those who will fawn over her was one of the highlights of the evening – and young treble Tino Canziani, drawn from the ranks of the Zürich Boys Choir to play Amore (a valiant effort sometimes marred by insecure intonation but charming nonetheless). For the orchestra’s part, the playing, too, was beyond reproach, the responsive accompaniments punctuated by wildly ecstatic dances and revealing an evident sense of enjoyment. Harnoncourt’s conducting was, like his arrangement, discreet and tasteful while being seasoned with passionate gestures.

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