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Notes and Editorial Reviews
L’incoronazione di Poppea
Claudio Cavina, cond; Pamela Lucciarini (
); Francesca Cassinari (
); Alena Dantcheva (
); Josè Maria Lo Monaco (
); Emanuela Galli (
); Roberta Mameli (
); Xenia Meijer (
); Raffaele Costantini (
); La Venexiana
GLOSSA 920916 (3 CDs; 204:40
Text and Translation)
Will the real Monteverdi
please stand up? For years scholars have been stating that the opera’s composer wasn’t singular, but a plural entity, that stylistic evidence points to the strong creative involvement of several other musicians—notably Cavalli, who possessed the Venetian manuscript that has been repeatedly recorded and performed over the years, with a variety of changes, cuts, figures, and transpositions meticulously detailed in his hand. That has furnished the basis of most recordings of the work. The only other extant copy of the opera with claims of a similar vintage was discovered in the Naples Conservatory in the late 1920s, and has been called the “Naples manuscript” ever since, though both the paper and written dialect indicate a Veneto-Emilian origin. It was an archival tome, bearing none of the telltale evidence of a performing copy, as Cavalli’s Venetian copy does. It may have even been intended as little more than a souvenir of the Febiarmonici, a performing troupe that gave
in Naples in 1651.
Regardless, the numerous insignificant differences and occasionally important structural variations (such as the exchange of order in act III between Arnalta’s scene of triumph and Arnalta’s heartfelt lament at leaving Rome) from the Venetian version that the Naples manuscript provides are among the reasons that have led musicologists to conclude these two manuscripts derive from different sources. Within less than a decade, the work had traveled down at least two separate paths of transformation. (At least, because there may have been others we have no knowledge of. The survival of the Naples version is an accident of history.) Neither version is the original, nor would its creators have been impressed by the idea of an opera’s sacrosanct nature.
So the answer to the original question posed above must be: both, and neither. Whatever form
originally took is lost to Time, who also owns the complete set of Herodotus’s
Love’s Labour’s Won
, Meyerhold’s film version of
The Picture of Dorian Grey
, and the undamaged
Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Claudio Cavina chose the Naples manuscript for his recording, and argues forcefully in his liner notes that the original orchestration must have included only strings, with a contingent of plucked instruments and a harpsichord for continuo. He offers copious circumstantial evidence that is reasonable, leaving me all but completely convinced. The opera would have been given in 1643 before an audience of powerful aristocrats and academicians, and was intended to celebrate
della Gloria de Venezia
, with a libretto by a distinguished member of its Accademia degli Invaghiti. Orchestral standards common to Venetian theaters of the period probably applied in this instance, but maybe not; no one can say for certain. Gabriel Garrido did not think so in his recording of the Naples version with Ensemble Elyma (K617 110), but his large, colorful orchestration seems to go too far in the other direction—and was an organ ever included as continuo in a theatrical performance at this point in its history? No matter; why should arguing over reproducing the exact orchestration of
’s premiere concern us, when its composers, in the spirit of the times, viewed the score itself as mutable according to the needs of the moment?
On to the performances. Cavina’s casting of the two leads was fortuitous, Roberta Mameli in particular. Her voice is a sharply focused lyric with a fast but unobtrusive vibrato, perfectly even across its registers, with a great deal of support at both ends. Perhaps it’s her Lieder training in evidence, but she colors and transforms each line, sometimes successive words, appropriately to fit the emotional circumstances of her very emotionally driven character. Her gleaming, fearlessly launched attacks have something of a tenor’s metal about them, though she never slights cantilena as required: “Ascendi, oh mia diletta” is classic, in this respect. At the moment, she’s my favorite Nerone, and I suspect that will continue for some time.
Emanuela Galli’s Poppea is nearly as good. With a darker, sultry tone that curls around words, she’s clearly got a handle on the sex kitten aspect of her role. This works to her advantage in the scenes with Nerone. When alone with Arnalta, however, she maintains the imposture, and it sits awkwardly on the prayer she makes to Cupid in act II (“Or che Seneca è morto”). Some listeners may also be put off by her swift, repeated movement from one end of the dynamic range to the other, as well as her tendencies to crop the occasional syllable, and croon vowels when singing softly. I’m inclined to think this kind of singing would be difficult to maintain on stage, unless it were a very small stage by modern standards, though it’s certainly possible in front of a microphone. It’s lovely to listen to, at any rate, with good attention to the meaning of the text.
Also fine is Xenia Meijer: very believable, again combining excellent interpretative values, specific to what she’s singing rather than generalized. Just occasionally, I felt she was too inclined to sacrifice accuracy for theatrics, quivering off center repeatedly in “Addio Roma! Addio patria,” for instance. Hers is a volcanic Octavia, without emotional restraint throughout the opera. It is a notable assumption.
Unfortunately, not everyone else in the cast rises to their level. Raffaele Costantini’s upper range isn’t secure, and his intonation is at times shaky, while Pamela Lucciarini has only moderate coloratura, and a habit of swooping melodramatically up to or out of the proper pitch. Francesca Cassinari’s bright, rich tone is easily colored, and she provides excellent coloratura, as well. Alena Dantcheva’s purer, “higher” sound suits Amor. Josè Maria Lo Monaco doesn’t so much sing the role, as speak-sing it, with a lot of quivering of the tone off and around the pitch at any given time. Ian Honeyman combines all the current early-music clichés applied to singing humorous characters—over-emphatic vowels, flatted pitches, whitened tone, shouting, screeching, and shrieking off-key, numerous grace notes sliding down to the pitch at the start of a phrase, etc—to such an extent as to completely overwhelm his role, and render it nearly unlistenable.
The conducting is, on the whole, advantageous to the project. Claudio Cavina stretches and condenses tempo as he feels the dramatic mood demands it. At best, this creates an almost improvised sense of activity, where the energy of the score finds its equivalent in the pacing. The scenes between Nerone and Poppea have seldom been equaled in their natural give-and-take, never surpassed in my experience. However, there are a very few occasions, as in Ottone’s opening scene, where he seems to rush headlong, trampling dramatic moments underfoot. Another quirky aspect of this release is the way the harmonies, figures, and syncopation of the final duet take on the same pop-like configurations that transfigured (some would say, disfigured) Cavina’s recording of
Lamento della Ninfa
from Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals (Glossa 920928). The instrumental section of the group he founded, La Venexiana, responds with precision and nuance to his direction.
The sound, alas, is cathedral-like, with a very reverberant ambiance. As with Emanuela Galli’s extraordinarily soft dynamics, so I can’t conceive of a large, empty church being used for a stage performance of this work. While I prefer his singers in general to Garrido’s, the latter performs in a more appropriate acoustic environment, where vocalists and instrumentalists aren’t granted a heavy sheen and some extra bass resonance by the environment.
Which Naples version to get, then? In the end, I’d go with the more dramatic, meaning Cavina’s, despite having a strong aversion to its Arnalta, and a moderate one to its Ottone. There’s much to enjoy from Garrido’s more highly colored if less passionate reading, but with a fine conductor at its helm, and an electrifying pair as its Nerone and Poppea, this set belongs in your collection.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
L'Incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi
José Maria Lo Monaco (Countertenor),
Emanuela Galli (Soprano),
Roberta Mameli (Soprano),
Xenia Meijer (Mezzo Soprano),
Ian Honeyman (Tenor),
Raffaele Costantini (Bass)
Written: 1642; Venice, Italy
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Fascinating recording July 4, 2014
By Weston Williams (Chicago, IL) See All My Reviews
"This opera is fascinating, with a cutting-edge performance by the singers, orchestra, and conductor. Some of the choices are a little grating for modern ears, but the overall effect is dramatic and an important step in restoring traditional techniques to contemporary performances of older music. Highly recommended."