Musikfest 2: Love’s Stranger Triumphs
For more than fifty years, Sir John Eliot Gardiner has been one of Monteverdi’s most persuasive champions. He has not been alone of course – Nikolaus Harnoncourt was also instrumental in reintroducing the wider public to Monteverdi’s dramatic and sacred works around the time of the composer’s fourth centenary in 1967 – but he has been remarkably persistent in his advocacy. This year, in celebration of Monteverdi’s 450th birthday, he has assembled a group of musicians – the English Baroque Soloists, the Monteverdi Choir and an extensive cast of vocal soloists – to take the three surviving operas on a world tour. Yet their three sold out evenings in Berlin, presented as a cornerstone of this year’s Musikfest, were less a labour of musical outreach than a victory lap, and the rapturous response which greeted their performance of L’incoronazione di Poppea suggest that Sir John’s persistence has not gone unrewarded.
Monteverdi is often regarded as the father of opera, with L’Orfeo acting as the first recognisable entry in the operatic canon, and Poppea standing (arguably) as the genre’s first masterpiece. Yet for anyone who comes to Monteverdi by tracing the history of opera in reverse, passing through the works of Rossini, Gluck and Händel on their way, these early works can come as something of a surprise. The boundary between recitative and aria has yet to be fully delineated and what emerges is a continuous drama established as much through sound as through dialogue. It is perhaps unsurprising that Monteverdi would have to wait until the twentieth century – a time when opera audiences may have been more receptive to his conception of musical drama – for a substantial reappraisal.
On this evening, Monteverdi’s distinctive approach to melody, texture and narrative pacing were all on prominent display, but Sir John and his assembled company made sure that their Poppea was no mere history lesson. The performance was staged in so far as the singers appeared in stylised costumes and moved about the stage while singing their roles; there were no sets or props (apart from the crown implied by the title), and the changes of scene were introduced mostly through subtle shifts in lighting, but it was enough to convey the essence of the opera as a work of theatre. The direction, by Elsa Rooke in collaboration with Sir John, was simple and understated, sketching an outline of each scene but leaving the singers and the music to flesh out the details.
Hana Blažíková (Poppea / Fortune) in Monteverdi: L’incoronazione di Poppea. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, conductor. © ShotAway, 2017
Among the large cast – a total of fifteen singers for eighteen roles – there were numerous exceptional performances. Anna Dennis, who sang Virtue in the prologue and Drusilla in the opera-proper had the kind of strident tone, commanding presence and exacting delivery that made each of her appearances musically and dramatically rewarding. Her scenes near the end of the second act allowed delightful flickers of excitability to intrude upon the solemn business of plotting Poppea’s murder. In the title role, Hana Blažíková gave an elegantly crafted performance, and despite the inherent opportunism of the character, her Poppea came across as something of an innocent guided more by feelings of love than a desire for power: there was gentleness and longing in her early scenes, especially her pleas to Nerone in the first act, and it was not until the obstacles between her and her imperial lover were removed in the third act that her tone turned decidedly jubilant.
The evening’s two principal countertenors, Kangmin Justin Kim as Nerone and Carlo Vistoli as Ottone, brought highly distinctive voices to their respective roles. Mr Vistoli’s low-end warmth and keen sense of dramatic shape suggested a character under constant torment, either from the inaccessibility of Poppea, the unreasonable demands of the empress, or the weight of his own conscience. His solo scene at the end of the first act was a marvel of internal wrangling. Mr Kim’s voice was steelier and less prone to high-drama, resulting in an assured Nerone, indifferent to everything except his pursuit of Poppea. His accusation of Drusilla and subsequent clemency in the third act were given substance by their undisguised calculation.
The long-suffering empress Ottavia was given a strong, suitably anguished performance by Marianna Pizzolato; her finest moment, a grand farewell to Rome delivered near the end of the third act, revealed an unexpected nobility of character. Lucile Richardot, with an earthy, agile voice, was a superb Arnalta, delivering her final monologue with a piquant irony. And in an opera dominated by higher voices, one of the evening’s finest performances came from the bass Gianluca Buratto, whose appearances as Seneca were never less than magnificent. His crisp, imposing tone and steadfast manner in his first-act scene with Nerone offered a perfect illustration of why one should never argue with a philosopher, and his dignified preparations for suicide, surrounded by a small male chorus urging him not to die was perhaps the most affecting moment of the performance.
Although the exact instrumentation of Poppea will always be a matter for scholarly discussion, the ensemble assembled by Sir John was flexible enough to follow the contours of the drama while still creating an admirable density of sound. Indeed one of the most exciting elements of the performance was the way that the story was brought to life as much through texture as through harmony: the urgent strums of the theorbos and baroque guitars gave a stormy immediacy to numerous scenes – most notably Ottavia’s scene with Ottone in the second act – and the two cornetts, although sparingly used, gave a distinctive flavour to Poppea’s coronation. Sir John, who has spent the better part of a lifetime with Monteverdi’s music, presided over the ensemble with relaxed confidence and unassailable grace.
Even by today’s standards, the tale recounted in L’incoronazione di Poppea remains perplexing in its morality, and the successful efforts of Nerone and Poppea to rid themselves of anything standing in the way of their passion stands as one of love’s more questionable triumphs. Yet the outcome of the story – entirely consistent with the claims of Amore in the prologue – and the cynical tone of Busenello’s libretto strike the modern audience as neither strange nor antiquated, but rather as curiously relevant. On this evening, Sir John and his company made a similar argument for Monteverdi’s score: while the instrumental textures clearly belonged to a more distant past, as a work of musical drama it seemed almost surprisingly modern.