Cavina’s “Poppea” a Riveting Performance

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Monteverdi: L’Incoronazione di Poppea / Pamela Lucciarini, soprano (La Fortuna); Francesca Cassinari, mezzo (Virtù/Drusilla); Alena Dantcheva, soprano (Amore); José Maria Lo Monaco, countertenor (Ottone); Emanuela Galli, soprano (Poppea); Roberta Mameli, soprano (Nerone); Ian Honeyman, tenor (Arnalta); Xenia Meijer, mezzo-soprano (Ottavia); Raffaele Costantini, bass (Seneca); La Venexiana; Claudio Cavina, conductor / Glossa 920916

While trying to find a complete performance of Poppea I found interesting and lively enough to keep, I ran across this recording. Now, there are two very excellent abridged performances of the opera for Monteverdi-lovers to choose from: the 1978 European TV broadcast conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with Rachel Yakar (Poppea), Eric Tappy (Nerone), Trudeleise Schmidt (Ottavia), Matti Salminen (Seneca) and Janet Perry (Drusilla), and the 2000 video conducted by Marc Minkowski with Mirielle Delunsch (Poppea), Anne Sophie von Otter (Nerone), Sylvie Brunet (Ottavia) and Denis Sedov as Seneca. But of complete performances the choice is far more problematic. If you want the most consistently good singers, you have to go for the Gardiner recording on DGG Arkiv, but although this, too is a live performance, it’s theatrically as dull as dishwater.

Which leads us to the current recording, made in 2009 and issued in 2010. By and large, Claudio Cavina has stuck to the Naples manuscript, discovered at the conservatory in that city in the late 1920s. This version does not bear signs of a performing copy, as does the Venetian manuscript edited by Francesco Cavalli, although Cavina has chosen to include some instrumental interludes written by Cavalli after Monteverdi had died. Yet he also sticks pretty much to the traditional instrumentation, resisting the temptation, as followed by Gabriel Garrido, to re-orchestrate the opera in the manner of L’Orfeo. There are a few small cuts but not large or major ones, thus I consider this, more or less, a complete performance.

Several critics have praised the lead singers (Galli, Mameli, Meijer and Costantini) while lambasting the performances of the two “travesty” tenor roles in drag, Ottone and Arnalta The latter, sung by one Ian Honeyman, is particularly nettlesome because 1) he clearly doesn’t have much voice and 2) his role is considerably larger than that of the Ottone. To compensate, however, he characterizes his role with so much relish—and yes, a bit of hot dog and mustard on the side!—that I actually found myself laughing at it, and that, for me, was part of the enjoyment.

Let me interject a personal memory here. Many years ago, back in the mid-1980s, I attended a student performance of this opera at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music that was simply phenomenal. Aside from the superb Poppea of Dianne Iauco, a mezzo-soprano who mysteriously disappeared from the opera scene a few years after graduation, and the beautifully-sung Valletto of tenor Frank Kelley, the whole cast gave a rousing performance that has never left my memory despite a few of the other voices being less than perfect. Moreover, the “travesty tenor” who Harnoncourt uses in his performance as Arnalta, Alexander Oliver, gives a similarly over-the-top performance. Which brings me to a point that too few people seem to realize:

COMEDY, SPECIFICALLY LEWD COMEDY, IS PART AND PARCEL OF THIS OPERA!

Monteverdi was an Italian. Cavalli, his trusted assistant, was Italian. And Poppea, Monteverdi’s greatest opera, is a wide-screen panorama of emotions and complex relationships that works to produce a wide range of emotions in the listener/viewer. There is the tragedy of the banished Empress, Ottavia, and the even greater tragedy of the philosopher Seneca, ordered by Nero to kill himself by drinking poison hemlock as a penalty for opposing his tryst with Poppea. But there is also irony in the faux “coronation” of Poppea as the new Empress, and the knowledge that after the opera ends Nero will eventually watch Rome literally burn to the ground. It’s this juxtaposition of events and emotions that makes this opera so great, and yes, there is supposed to be a sort of ironic humor in the over-the-edge emotional reactions of Ottone and Arnalta.

Very few Monteverdi lovers have ever heard the lanfmark 1951 performance of L’Orfeo that Paul Hindemith spent nearly a decade reconstructing from existing manuscripts. I mention it here not just because the instrumental forces were so appropriate, though they were, but also because it, too, presented us with an Italianate interpretation of the opera. I’ve come to prefer that kind of singing in L’Orfeo ever since, and this performance of Poppea also fulfills that expectation.

We also have to accept the fact, if we’re being historically correct, that not many singers back then had legitimate operatic training…on the contrary, there were probably very few. And the best singers were undoubtedly put into the plum roles mentioned above: Poppea, Drusilla, Nerone, Ottavia and Seneca. The others, including our Prologue and Epilogue characters of Virtue, Fortune and Love, were undoubtedly assigned to vocalists who could just about get through Monteverdi’s music and sing it on key and in rhythm. We need to remember, for instance, that a performing troup of singers called Febiarmonici performed this opera in Naples in 1651…which may even be the source of the “Naples manuscript” that Cavina uses.

Thus we are faced with a truism that too few people, particularly all these uptight British and German musicologists of today, seem to realize: early performers of the first Itlaian operas, including Monteverdi’s, were Italian singers and performers, and Italians are nothing if not an emotional people. And boy did they love comedy, the bawdier the better! So before we condemn Cavina for his choices of these singers in the subsidiary roles, we have to recall that Monteverdi started that ball rolling by casting them for “travesty tenors” and not for female singers, which would have been easier.

As for why he didn’t cast Nero for a tenor, we may never know, but perhaps there were none available in 1643 when the opera was premiered. I like it when they switch the role to a tenor, as Alan Curtis did in 1966 (Charles Bressler) and Harnoncourt did in 1978, but then we have to pitch Poppea’s music higher which causes distress for some of the singers playing that role. If we were to use a male singer nowadays, a high baritone would fill the role better, because when Nero’s music is transposed down an octave that’s the voice type it suits, but no one ever seems willing to do this. I’m happy with Roberta Mameli in the role because she, like von Otter, gives us an imperious, somewhat snarky Nero, which suits the role to a T.

My one complaint in the casting, actually, is that of Dutch mezzo Xenia Meijer as Ottavia. It’s not that her voice is surprisingly high and light in timbre for the role, though it is, so much as her interpretation. Perhaps I’m too used to the digfnified and serious performances of Schmidt and von Otter, but to hear an Ottavia who sounds like a petulant child whining about having been thrown over for another woman struck me as odd. Is it an interesting take on the character? Yes, of course it is. After all, we don’t know what the real Ottavia was like; we’re only guessing; and although Monteverdi’s music for her final monologue, “Addio Roma! Addio patria!” is slow and dignified music, there may well have been some Italian (or Roman) temperament in her as well that led her to become rather shrewish. In any case, it’s a different take on the character.

Cavina also presents a different musical take on the final duet. I’m so used to hearing “Pur ti miro” sung by luscious sopranos as Poppea and either fine tenors or mezzos as Nero that I’ve come to think of it as the first great “love duet” in opera, but here the singers give the music an interesting rhythmic kick. They hold back slightly on the beat, which displaces the music very slightly from the accompanying instrumental recitativo, giving it a sound almost like that of a jazz performance. Now of course no one in 1651 Naples knew what jazz was or would be, but once again we have to pay attention to what Italian music was like, and syncopations were part and parcel of Italian popular and folk music even that far back. Again, given the fact that popular singers were often employed in performances of this work, there is a possibility that they carried over their Italian pop music styles into this music. Think of the choruses or the “Commedia dell’arte” moments in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci for parallels.

This, then, is the third great Monteverdi opera performance, after Gabriel Garrido’s recordings of L’Orfeo and Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. I recommend it despite the few caveats mentioned above, although I also strongly urge you to acquire the 1978 Harnoncourt version, abridged though it is, for a best-sung performance that is also lively. I think you’ll be surprised!

 —© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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