This fiery performance of L'incoronazione di Poppea (referred to here as Il Nerone, the title used in Busenello's libretto) is driven by the resonant honesty of the characters' extreme and frequently volatile emotional states, which the soloists convey with singing of exceptional individuality, purity, and tonal beauty. The 2009 recording was made soon after a series of staged performances in France, Germany, and Italy, and it shows; the singers and instrumentalists have the freedom that comes from an easy familiarity with the score and with each other that allows them to perform with a spontaneity that sounds like they are making the music up on the spot. Characterizations are especially strongly drawn, and conductor Claudio Cavina is able to lead the group with the extremely flexible tempos that Monteverdi is known to have advocated. The instrumental ensemble is dominated by plucked strings, so the accompaniment initially sounds somewhat twangy and brittle, but the program notes make a strong case for the historical precedent for the use of these instruments, and the ear eventually adjusts to the sound. The performance really takes off when the principals make their entrances, and by the third scene, the erotically charged bedroom interaction with Poppea and Nero, the listener is likely to be swept up in the musical excitement and drama. Among the fabulous soloists, almost all of whom are simply outstanding, Roberta Mameli as Nero, Emanuela Galli as Poppea, Ian Honeyman as Arnalta, Xenia Meijer as Ottavia, Francesca Cassinari as Drusilla, Alena Dantcheva as Valetto, and Pamela Lucciarini as Damigella make especially vivid impressions. The only weak link is Raffaele Costantini's underpowered Seneca.
The opera requires performers to make difficult editorial decisions because it exists in two very different versions, a "clean" copy of the score from Naples, and a performing score from Venice full of annotations and revisions, and neither is the original manuscript. (Neither, in fact, even definitively identifies Monteverdi as the composer.) Cavina works from the Naples version. Most significantly, he performs Act I, scene 11, exactly as written. A strophic song with a ritornello and alternating verses for Ottone and Poppea, its verses for Ottone are written in a key eccentrically distant from that of the ritornello and of Poppea's verses. Most modern performances follow the directions from the Venice version, in which a note in the hand of composer Francesco Cavalli instructs the performers to transpose Ottone's part to a more conventional key. The visceral punch the "unimproved" version delivers is a powerful musical illustration of the emotional chasm between Ottone and Poppea and is evidence that the composer may have actually known what he was doing. Cavina makes a few inoffensive editorial changes, adding some brief instrumental sinfonias, mostly by Cavalli, that were needed to cover scene changes in the staged performances. Glossa's sound is immaculate, warm, and present. Highly recommended.