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Monteverdi – The Final Operas at Het Muziektheatre Amsterdam

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

Ulisse – Anthony Rolfe Johnson

Penelope – Graciela Araya

Telemaco – Toby Spence

Antinoo – Jaco Huijpen

Pisandro – Christopher Gillett

Antinomo – Brian Asawa

Eurimaco – Mark Tucker

Iro – Alexander Oliver

Melanto – Monica Bacelli

Eumete – Adrian Thompson

Minerva – Diana Montague

Musical Director – Glen Wilson
Stage Director – Pierre Audi
TV Director – Hans Hulscher
Set Design – Michael Simon
Costume Design – Jorge Jara
Lighting Design – Jean Kalman

(Recorded live at Het Muziektheatre Amsterdam October 1998)

Opus Arte DVD OA 0926 D – 176 minutes

Venice in the 1640s must have been an exciting place to be.    Opera had just taken off as a public entertainment, four opera houses had recently opened, and composers were working at full speed to provide new pieces to entertain both the wealthy residents and the many visitors who flocked to the city as part of their Grand Tour.   Monteverdi, who had devoted himself to sacred music since his appointment in 1613 as maestro di capella at St Mark's Basilica and was now well into his seventies could not resist the challenge of writing once again for the stage and the results give us some of his finest music, plus additional and usually inferior, sections composed by younger assistants.    Opus Arte have recently issued DVDs of his two surviving late operas ( Le nozze d'Enea in Lavinia has sadly been lost) in excellent live recordings on period instruments from Amsterdam 's ultra modern Muziektheatre.

Giacomo Badoaro's libretto is based on Homer's Odyssey (books 13 – 23). There are a selection of versions of the Odyssey on the internet, but for more pleasurable reading I would recommend Robert Fagle's verse translation (Penguin Classics).  Musical Director Glen Wilson has made what he describes as a performing version which streamlines the plot by some rearrangement of order and cuts, including the elimination of a number of minor characters.   There are no additions to the music from outside sources and none of the extra “orchestration” that was popular in the 1970s.    

It opens with the conventional 17 th century Prologue in which the moral and philosophical arguments of the drama are defined, before the action proper begins in Ithaca where Penelope continues her long wait for her husband Ulisse, and refuses to countenance the advances of suitors. Ulysse has enraged the sea god and been stranded on a barren island in the centre of the seas, but whilst Poseidon is otherwise distracted, the goddess Minerva seizes the opportunity for rescue, disguises Ulysse as an old man, and reunites him with his son Telemaco.  

Ulysse arrives home disguised as beggar, where Penelope has attempted to divert her troublesome suitors by setting them the task of stringing Ulysse's great bow. After all fail, the beggar asks to try his luck, succeeds, and kills the suitors. Penelope is convinced of his true identity and the story has a happy ending.       

On the face of it, not a lot of plot for almost three hours of music, had the cast been less carefully chosen. Their singing is universally first rate, they are of an appropriate age for the characters they portray, and their acting is outstanding.    Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Ulysse) achieves his transformation into an old man simply by changing his stance and demeanour, and carries real authority. Graciela Araya makes a dignified and charismatic Penelope, Diana Montague a poised Minerva,   Monica Bacelli a persuasive and sweet voiced Melanto.   The trio of suitors are strongly characterised and I particularly enjoyed veteran Scottish tenor Adrian Thompson's portrayal of the repulsive Iro.  

The set is deceptively simple, the costumes are of Monteverdi's period.   In the court scenes the rich colours of velvet prevail under warm lighting, and the filmed close ups are very skilfully composed – evocative of Vermeer's portraits.      The introduction of a live eagle on stage to accompany Jove's musical thunder clap is a moment of sheer theatrical magic.

All in all this is one of the best DVDs to come my way for some time, and one that I can whole-heartedly recommend.

L'incoronazione di Poppea

Poppea _ Cynthia Haymon
Nerone – Brigitte Balleys
Ottavia - Ning Liang
Ottone - Michael Chance
Seneca – Harry van der Kamp
Drusilla – Heidi Grant Murphy
Arnalta – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Nutrice – Dominique Visse
Valletto – Claron McFadden

Musical Director – Christophe Rousset
Stage Director – Pierre Audi
TV Director – Hans Hulscher
Set Design – Michael Simon
Costume Design – Emi Wada
Lighting Design – Jean Kalman

Opus Arte OA 0924 D – (Recorded live July 1994; 219 mins)

In complete contrast to the patient and virtuous Penelope, Poppea's morals are driven by ambition. The Prologue presents a dispute between the allegories Human Frailty, Time, Love and Fortune, in which Love claims greatest influence on the world.       Poppea's husband Ottone returns to find that she has abandoned him in favour of an affair with the unsavoury emperor Nero, who is completely infatuated with her and declares that he will reno unce the Empress (Octavia) in order to re-marry.       Octavia turns to the statesman Seneca, who is promptly condemned to death for his support of her.     Octavia then approaches Ottone and urges him to revenge himself on Poppea.     He disguises himself in clothing borrowed from his new love Drusilla, but his murderous attempt fails as Poppea is protected by the Goddess of Love.      Drusilla is arrested, Ottone confesses and both are banished.   Octavia is repudiated and exiled for her part in the conspiracy, Poppea is triumphantly crowned Empress, and Love and immorality have won!

The libretto is derived from Tacitus and it is the earliest known opera to be based on factual historical characters and events.      It is a long, complicated plot, with a full cast of minor characters, and needs the careful direction that Pierre Audi gives it to present a clear story line, although Emi Wada's costumes do nothing to help, constructed in strange shapes from wildly exaggerated fabrics – nightmare versions of Kaffe Fassett like patchworks.

There is again a strong cast, which includes the bold decision to cast a soprano in the role of Nero, (rather than a male alto as is more frequently chosen) and produce a blend of voices closer to Monteverdi's intentions.    Brigitte Balleys more than justifies the decision, both with her singing and portrayal of Nero's ambiguous character, and she is well matched by Cynthia Hamon's seductive Poppea.   Whilst Seneca's oratory is somewhat marred by Harry van der Kamp's pronounced accent, Michael Chance makes a solid Ottone, and Heidi Grant Murphy's attractive voice is perfect for the guileless Drusilla.    Claron Mc Fadden's Valletto stands out amongst the lesser roles.

My reservations lie with the recording – both vision and sound.   For much of the time the camera seems to be located in the orchestra pit, roughly level with the singers' knees, and the image is frequently broken into by the heads of the musicians and the necks of their instruments.     Again, the microphones seem to be low, as we hear every footstep across the stage, but rather fewer of the singers' words.     For a good part of the time the depth of the stage is cut by a fairly solid looking wall which acts as a sounding board and throws back the voices – this probably worked well for the theatre audience, but is less helpful on the soundtrack.  

So, a qualified approval for this one – useful to have, since it includes both the Prologue and Brigitte Balleys' Nero, but perhaps not a permanent first choice.

Serena Fenwick

[See also DVDs of Poppea at Schwetzinger & Ulysse at Zurich PGW]

© Peter Grahame Woolf