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MONTEVERDI live and on DVD

POPPEA at ENO & St Bartholomew the Great, London, and from SCHWETZINGER

The combination of emotion and stylisation in Monteverdi's operas allows many valid approaches to modern production, whether lavishly in major theatres, or in student productions on a shoestring. Early Venetian operas can be particularly rewarding for home viewing on DVD, offering a clear advantage with subtitles in choice of language.

The Crowning of Poppea was a notable success in English at ENO, and Trinity College of Music gave L'Incoronazione di Poppea recently (in Italian with surtitles) with equal distinction, using the architecture of a great City of London church for its setting. The Arthaus DVD 100 108 from the 1993 Schwetzinger Festival is witty, cruel and romantic in a unique mix that is Monteverdi's own.

The DVD of La Favola d'Orfeo (Opus Arte OA 0842-D) is a valuable record of a sumptuous and imaginative recreation in the rebuilt Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, staged with the conceit that Monteverdi himself is conducting.

My full reviews of each of these will appear at the click of your mouse onto the links.

It has been of particular interest to have seen Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria live in Zurich and subsequently on DVD, the latter the more satisfying experience. I reprint here extracts from my review of the live performance in TheOperaCritic:

Nikolaus Harnoncourt/Klaus Michael Grüber Opernhaus, Zurich

- - Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who first directed it as long ago as 1967, considers the radical innovations in new opera of the 1600s to have been as important and revolutionary as the early 20th C assault upon tonality. Klaus Michael Grüber's new production supports Monteverdi's aim to put the human drama in the foreground and individualise characters through musical forms. The sets have an apt simplicity, eschewing fussy detail and spectacular effects. The colours are cool, predominantly white, blue and black, transporting us to a modern day, rather poor Greek village. Penelope's residence is shown as a stark white wall, like a child's depiction of an oracular face, with windows and the doorway opening blacked out. The cobbled ground, which revolves to indicate distance and the passage of time, is painted blue and white, with the face of a God in the foreground. Attention is focussed and concentrated upon the protagonists. Eva Dessecker's costumes are updated and relevant, with Penelope in simple black, like the widow of twenty years she feels herself to be, and she is surrounded by village characters we could have met on holiday. - - at times we were as confused as the principal players, some of whom are in and out of disguise. - - Reality becomes tenuous, with Penelope's importunate suitors become puppeteers, their gaudy puppets ridiculous, and each in turn too weak to draw what purports to be Ulisse's famous bow - - Ulisse alone does so easily, and then in pique destroys the puppets, thereby revealing his identity, which Penelope is however slow to accept .- - The crucial recognition scene between husband and faithful wife was however less moving than I recall it in Pierre Audi's production at the newly opened Amsterdam Operatheater, now many years ago.

- - Monteverdi's reforms gave back the primacy of text, - - he set stories of Homer, the details of which were known to cultured opera goers, so that every character was immediately recognisable. This is no longer so, therefore it is all the more important to make the words readily 'available', by whatever means. - - In Zurich, Italian is the least spoken of the Swiss languages and the Homer text in Giacomo Badoaro's libretto is often quite complex. Without full comprehension there were inevitable longeurs in what was a long evening (three hours with one interval). - - The vexed issue of surtitles came to the fore for us again as we watched, often quite confused despite having read the synopsis, and it was a topic of interval discussion. We met with agreement that surtitles would not have interfered with the staged drama's impact and rather would have helped substantially; people are by now used to having a choice of text languages on DVD and surtitles are increasingly provided in opera houses after earlier purist resistance, which becomes harder to sustain when the sense is so often far from clear even with opera in native language. I would rate this Ulisse as worth seeing but not meriting a substantial special journey.

Arrival of the Arthaus DVD 100 352 confirmed my expectations, the availability of the full libretto before your eyes a crucial bonus, and close focus upon the singers and action (our seats at Zurich Opernhaus were high up and far from the stage) adding a dimension of involvement. Vesselina Kassarova's low key performance, in particular, was far more involving as caught by the camera, and so was Klaus Michael Grüber's realisation of the wooing by Penelope's suitors as a puppet show. The reunion of Penelope with her long absent husband was once again as moving as I had found it in Amsterdam.

Ulisse is the least often given of Monteverdi's great operas, perhaps because lengthy waiting is not the most exciting of theatrical situations, but this DVD helps to make it take its place as the equal of the others. Each of these three is recommendable and would make an enriching purchase. They are amongst the most treasurable in my collection of DVDs and taken together should make converts to the earliest extant operas.

Peter Grahame Woolf








© Peter Grahame Woolf