Raymond Leppard / Janet Baker

Claudio Monteverdi: The Coronation of Poppea

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Although there had been sporadic performances of the operas of Monteverdi in the 20th century, Raymond Leppard was instrumental in bringing them, as well as the operas of Cavalli, to the sustained attention of broad audiences, and for that, music lovers will forever be in his debt. The modern Monteverdi renaissance began with Leppard's introduction of The Coronation of Poppea at the 1962 Glyndebourne Festival, and this recording of the opera, in the English translation of Geoffrey Dunn, comes from a live 1971 performance at the London Coliseum, featuring the Sadler's Wells Opera Chorus and Orchestra, with Janet Baker in the title role. While its historical significance cannot be denied, this is a version of the opera that is less likely to interest general listeners than Baker's fans and scholars of the evolution of trends in historically informed performance practice. In its time, it exemplified a forward-looking approach to the opera, but more recent scholarship and performers' increasing fluency in the music of the early Baroque make it sound like a dinosaur. A crucial concern is the looseness with which Leppard treats the score, particularly in his deployment of the roles. Nero, written for a soprano, is sung by a tenor, as is Valetto; Ottone, written for a mezzo-soprano, is sung by a baritone; and most oddly, Arnalta, written for a tenor, is sung by an alto. The role of Nutrice is eliminated entirely (with Drusilla, completely out of character, taking some of her lines) and overall, well over a half hour of music is cut. The idiomatic singing and playing of early Baroque specialists, which 21st century take for granted, is conspicuously missing, with some of the singers aiming for a purer tone and some appropriate vocal ornamentation and others using a full-blown bel canto vibrato. Sadly, the performance lacks dramatic spark; only in a few moments, such as Valletto and Damigella's duet, does Monteverdi's potent theatricality shine through. Several vocal performances stand out. Baker sings with luminous tone, but she fails to convey Poppea's complex personality, by turns seductively kittenish and ruthless; Ottavia seems like a role far more appropriate for her temperament. Clifford Grant is fully convincing in projecting Seneca's gravity and authority. John Brecknock and Iris Saunders are especially effective as Valletto and Damigella, and Anne Collins is very fine as Arnalta, as is Elizabeth Gale as Love. Leppard's conducting tends to be on the sluggish side and in a large part responsible for the lack of dramatic momentum. He has frequently been criticized for the size of the orchestra he uses for Monteverdi, particularly the number of modern strings, and here he further augments the ensemble because of the size of the Coliseum and the effect is often ponderous and sometimes leaden. Aside from occasional annoying tape noise, the sound of the BBC broadcast is relatively clean for a live performance, but it is inescapably a product of its period and is unlikely to be acceptable to listeners accustomed to the standards of 21st century technology.

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