Monteverdi: L'incoronazione di Poppea

De Niese, Coote; Glyndebourne; OAE/Haïm; Dir. Robert Carsen (Decca DVD 074 3339)

4 August 2009 4 stars

Glyndebourne PoppeaThis smart and sexy production of L'incoronazione di Poppea is the second show from last year's Glyndebourne Festival to make it onto DVD. While it might share a few cast members with Laurent Pelly's updated Hansel and Gretel, it would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast.

Robert Carsen's take on Monteverdi's opera is short on the specifics of scenery, creating instead a seductive, plush world in a production that displays an acute awareness of Glyndebourne itself as a reassuring luxury brand. Alice Coote's Nero is scarily power-crazed but, dressed in a dinner jacket liberally quaffing a variety of drinks throughout the evening, is without doubt used to the finer things in life. When Poppea and Arnalta settle down in the garden, on the other hand, they tuck in to a hamper of strawberries and champagne; after they make their exit, Cupid has a glass himself.

A bold coup de théâtre means the savvy cleverness of the production is clear right from the start, the allegorical conflict of the prologue between Fortune and Virtue played out as a dispute over a seat in the front row of the stalls. Cupid is dressed in a suit of deep red velvet, while great swathes of the same material not only make up the curtains but are spread over the stage forming a bold visual representation of sensual love in which the characters all-too-willingly entangle and wrap themselves.

The show also, undoubtedly, benefits greatly from the presence of Danielle De Niese. The fact that she, as fiancée of Glyndebourne's chairman Gus Christie, has now achieved another sort of coronation at the Sussex festival gives an ironic twist to the show's multiple layers, yet De Niese oozes sex-appeal: hers is a performance, rare for opera, that positively gains from the close-up scrutiny of the camera. Every swoon, sigh and flutter of the eye-lids is captured with almost indecent candour. Vocally she is not quite as compelling but is magnificent in creating a character both manipulative and irresistible.

Opposite her, Coote's Nero is a convincingly nasty piece of work; intoxicated variously by lust, alcohol and power he is portrayed as a profoundly unstable tyrant, spending much of his time distractedly picking his teeth - a disturbing nervous tick that suggests an unusually carnivorous, barbaric appetite. This is exemplified when celebrating the death of Seneca his already highly-charged duet with his friend Lucano culminates in his ritual murder. It's a shocking decision by Carsen that perhaps removes any final vestige of nobility from the love between Nero and Poppea at the opera's centre – if indeed there is any to be found – but is carried out with shocking intensity by Coote.

A welcome by-product, however, is that the nobility of the other characters is intensified, most notably in the case of Poalo Battaglia's handsomely dignified Seneca. The relationship between Iestyn Davies's Ottone and Marie Arnet's Drusilla is similarly elevated; despite Cupid's concentration on the emperor and his consort this becomes the beating heart of the action. Tamara Mumford brings passion and nobility to Ottavia, emphasising the injustice of her lot. The rest of the large cast is of similarly high quality, including Amy Freston's mischievous cupid and comic turns from Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Arnalta and Dominique Visse as the Nurse.

Musical direction comes from Emmanuelle Haïm, bringing playing of rare beauty from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. In keeping with the smartly modern staging, Haïm's direction emphasises the unbelievable seductiveness of the suspensions and dissonances that pervade the music. She's not afraid to linger on these moments of beauty and varies the instrumentation with imagination: the continuo group is listed in the booklet as consisting of ten musicians but she pares her forces down to almost nothing on occasion, to magical effect.  

By Hugo Shirley


De NieseRelated articles:

Interview: Danielle De Niese
DVD Review: Glyndebourne's 2008 Hansel and Gretel (Decca)
Opera Review:
Danielle De Niese stars in Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne