In my view, for L’Incoronazzione di Poppea to work there must be several ingredients in the musical-dramatic mix of any revival of this gem: a great Poppea and a great Nerone, a strong staging concept, and a good supporting cast that includes a good basso for the key role of Seneca, a true contralto in the role of Arnalta, and an acceptable Ottone, Ottavia, and Drusilla. No big, dramatic voices are needed, just simply good singers up on the Early Baroque style of Monteverdi.
I sat down to view Sir John Elliot Gardiner’s Opus Arte DVD and quickly became impatient with its neither concert, nor opera staging – a hybrid much in vogue these days, in which singers are positioned in front of an orchestra in silly static tableaux arrangements, with the accompanying instrumentalists fully in view behind them.
Good a conductor as he is, Sir John is not a capable stage director, and he leaves his clueless cast to their own devices, much to the detriment of the entire operation.
Some of the singers in this Incoronazzione survive unscathed, notably the wonderful Czech soprano Hana Blažíková, who sings and acts up a storm as an incandescently sultry Poppea.
Not a survivor is the Korean-American countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim, whose vocally insubstantial and dramatically sexless Nerone made me at first wonder if it was a female I was listening to and watching until I quickly double-checked the cast list to discover that this singer is a countertenor.
Little is known about the original cast assembled by Monteverdi for the premiere of this opera, other than Stefano Costa, the original Nerone was a castrato. If we are to read the many existing descriptions of what the great castrati sounded like, it would be safe to surmise that their sound was not like that of a female voice but rather that of a manly male voice with a very high register. That said, give me a tenor in the role of the mad Roman Emperor who can project virility and I will listen to yet another recording of Monteverdi’s masterpiece.
The supporting cast in the Gardiner recording is good, the Monteverdi Choir and English Barioque Soloists unparallel, the Poppea of Hana Blažíková superb. All that is needed here is a Nerone with what the guys in Brooklyn call moxie.
Rafael de Acha © 2022