This splendid DVD of L'incoronazione di Poppea is part of De Nederlandse Opera's cycle of the complete Monteverdi operas, including a staged version of Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Christophe Rousset leads the French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques and an outstanding cast of soloists. It's rare to find a live recording of an opera in which the music is executed so flawlessly and brilliantly. The instrumental ensemble plays Rousset's realization of the score with crisp precision and enormous flair. The soloists' effortlessly virtuosic vocal performances are matched by their vivid dramatic characterizations. As Poppea, soprano Cynthia Haymon is sweet voiced and deceptively innocent, making her scandalous behavior all the more disquieting. Mezzo-soprano Brigitte Balleys brings plenty of vocal power to her imposing Nerone. Bass Harry van der Kamp is a surprisingly youthful and virile Seneca, but the gravity of his bearing and his dark, authoritative voice make him fully convincing. Other singers who stand out among the excellent cast are Ning Liang as Ottavia, Sandrine Piau as Amore, Heidi Grant Murphy as Drusilla, and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Arnalta. The opera is performed virtually uncut; it runs nearly three and three-quarters hours. Unfortunately, the most noticeable cut is from Act I, scene 11, in Poppea's confrontation with her former lover, Ottone; the psychological power of Monteverdi's carefully calibrated musical architecture is diminished when the scene is truncated.
Director Pierre Audi's production is visually stunning, with significant credit going to Michael Simon's stark, monumental, and evocative set designs, with judiciously used stage effects that take viewers' breath away. The costumes, by Emi Wada, are flamboyantly eccentric and add an element of whimsy (and sometimes hilarity) to an otherwise sober production. Arnalta's costume is spectacularly odd -- she wears stiff, flat cutouts of a ball gown in front and in back, and a headdress that calls to mind the Flying Nun topped with a gigantic cubist beehive hairdo (or maybe it's a small Mayan pyramid.) When an army of maidservants in drag, all costumed exactly like Arnalta, races on-stage to capture Ottone, the effect is sublimely silly.
Audi's approach to the drama combines naturalism with stylized movements. The characters seldom interact directly, generally approaching each other obliquely, perhaps a visual analog for the fact that they so rarely speak the truth to one another. The exceptions are the scenes between lovers, which are enacted with great naturalism; the theme of the opera is the triumph of Amore, although in fact, the triumph of Lust would be a more apt description of the character's motivations. The love scenes between Poppea and Nerone, although they are fully clothed, when combined with Busenello's suggestive texts, leave little to the imagination. Other sexually charged scenes, including those between Valetto and Damigella and between Lucano and Nerone (the text of which does in fact support an erotic interpretation of their relationship), are likewise naturalistic. In a departure from this convention, Poppea and Nerone sing their rapturous final duet, "Pur ti miro," in isolation from each other. Perhaps Audi's intent was to foreshadow Nerone's loss of interest in Poppea once he had achieved his goal of fully acquiring her, that would lead him, in just a few years, to kick her to death while she was pregnant with their child. The travesti casting, of Monteverdi's own devising, in which Arnalta and Nutrice are played by men, gives the opera a gender-bending sensibility, which the director amplifies by giving two of the castrati roles (Nerone and Valetto) to mezzo-sopranos, and the third (Ottone) to a countertenor. A single reservation about the production is that the stage action is so rigorously choreographed that, except for the romantic scenes, there is little sense of spontaneity. Overall, the musical, dramatic, and scenic excellence of this performance should make this a DVD of interest to fans of Monteverdi, as well as fans of compelling and inventive opera stagings.