by Roderick Conway Morris

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Gardiner Tackles Poppea

By Roderick Conway Morris
CREMONA, Italy 1 December 1993


Europe's first modern violins were made in northern Italy in the early 16th century. By the time of Claudio Monteverdi's birth here in 1567, this pleasant riverside town southeast of Milan, had become the epicenter of violin, cello and viola making. An unbroken line of master craftsmen stretching from Andrea Amati to Antonio Stradivari maintained Cremona's virtual monopoly as the international exporter of top-class instruments until well into the 18th century.

The young Monteverdi's first post outside his hometown was as a violin and viol player at the Gonzaga Palace in neighboring Mantua. He had already published books of motets and madrigals while still in his teens, and his talents as a composer were soon employed in writing courtly entertainments. He later moved to Venice, where he placed an indelible stamp on sacred music and played a central role in establishing the novel genre of opera (the first public opera house was opened in Venice in 1637).

The inventiveness and complexity of Monteverdi's music was instrumental in revealing the enormous untapped potential of the violin. And ever since, despite numerous changes in style and tastes, the violin, with its phalanx of scaled-up cousins, has remained the king of Western orchestras.

Monteverdi died 350 years ago Monday, and Cremona marked the anniversary by inviting John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists to perform Monteverdi's last and greatest opera, 'L'Incoronazione di Poppea,' and, with the Monteverdi Choir, the 'Vespers of 1610,' his crowning work of liturgical composition.

Surprisingly, Gardiner, who has been such a prominent force in reviving and popularizing Baroque music, has never before tackled 'Poppea.' Closely based on accounts by the Roman historian Tacitus and the more gossipy chronicler Suetonius, the plot, as opera plots go, is simple. Poppea is conducting a passionate love affair with Emperor Nero. Beautiful and ambitious, she is determined to become empress. Inconveniently, Nero already has a wife, Octavia. Conveniently, Poppea has a shunned, embittered lover, Ottone, whom Octavia recruits to bump off her upstart rival. The plan fails, Octavia and Ottone are banished forever, and Poppea is duly crowned.

'Poppea' is a profoundly human drama, and the gods, who often play an obtrusive part in operas and masques of this period, appear on the fringes of events (though Love does save Poppea from assassination). For all its stylized presentation, this is an entirely credible world, fueled by uncontrollable erotic passions, jealousy, love transformed into loathing, the cruelty of happy victors and the despair of the emotionally vanquished.

The encounters between Poppea and Nero -- with their lingering, caressing, melodically and rhythmically daring texts and scores -- contain some of the most sexually charged music ever written. It is almost mystifying that such an explicit presentation of an obsessively physical relationship reached the mid-17th-century stage -- though the portrait in 'Poppea' of the degeneracy, arbitrariness and megalomania of emperors and their consorts must have been politically appealing in Venice, the only republic of that era.

At the premiere a 15-strong ensemble of the English Baroque Soloists, on strings, lutes, harps and keyboard, seduced, astonished and delighted with unostentatious virtuosity, filling Cremona's Teatro Ponchielli with a rich, subtle, entrancing sound.

THE American soprano Sylvia McNair's Poppea was magnetic, majestic, sensual and as utterly insidious and irresistible as Monteverdi intended. The Slovenian Bernarda Fink was magnificent throughout as Poppea's nurse and confidante - her aria triumphing in her mistress's victory is a tour de force of acting and singing. The countertenor Michael Chance sang Ottone with force and conviction, and Anne Sofie von Otter was memorable as Octavia, particularly moving in her final lament.

Although billed as a 'concert version,' the show was semi-staged. McNair's personal wardrobe served her well, but other performers were less fortunate.

Nero was originally written for a castrato. Gardiner, in search of the right register and vocal abilities, cast another American soprano, Dana Hanchard, as the Emperor. Her performance was superb - but here was a case where a fully staged version might have supported the illusion better. As it was, Hanchard's natural feminine elegance remained inescapable - threatening in the love scenes with Poppea to introduce an unlooked-for erotic subtext, quite superfluous in a drama already awash with sex.

Ultimately, the only recurrent fault in the production was that the acting did not always reach the dizzy standards of the music and the singing. If Gardiner could find a theatrical director to match his own outstanding mastery of the music, in order to guide the soloists on stage, his 'Poppea' could become as notable a landmark in the bringing to life of early opera as his captivating 'Vespers of 1610' has been in the revival of Baroque church music.

'Poppea' will be performed in Rome on Thursday, Vienna on Saturday and London on Dec. 8 and 11.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024