De Nederlandse Opera's seven-DVD set of the three surviving Monteverdi operas and a staged version of Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda represents a brilliant and conceptually unified approach to the works, thanks largely to the absolutely focused dramatic vision of director Pierre Audi and his ability to draw together some of the most gifted early music performers and most inventive visual designers to collaborate on a project. Audi's approach doesn't box his collaborators in; each opera has a distinctive look and sound, but they are united by the emotional integrity and economy of his direction, which emphasizes the humanity of the characters and the universality of the complexity of their relationships. For any opera to be fully effective, the singing must be superb, and the consistently transcendent vocal quality and idiomatically appropriate period practice are the other elements that raise these performances to the level of the sublime.
Each performance has unique strengths, with Poppea being probably the most effective in all its aspects. The cast is dramatically as well as musically first-rate. Cynthia Haymon is a sweet-voiced, deceptively innocent-looking Poppea and Brigitte Balleys is a scary, imposing Nerone. Other singers who stand out are Harry van de Kamp as Seneca, Ning Liang as Ottavia, Sandrine Piau as Amore, Heidi Grant Murphy as Drusilla, and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Arnalta. Michael Simon's stark, monumental sets and visual effects are stunningly effective and vividly memorable. Emi Wada's loopy costume designs add just the right element of eccentricity and humor to the largely sober production. Although the action is to some extent stylized and hieratic, the eroticism that's always bubbling just below the surface is practically scorching. Audi's direction sometimes seems counterintuitive (Poppea and Nerone sing "Pur ti miro" in isolation from each other), but he is consistent in striking a deep nerve of psychological truth about the characters' relationships. Christophe Rousset leads Les Talens Lyriques in a brilliant performance.
Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria is the most dramatically unwieldy of the operas, but Audi and music director Glen Wilson have made significant alterations in Giacomo Badoaro's rambling libretto, omitting most of the meddling deities (except for Minerva), tightening the action to focus on the drama of Penelope's agonizing wait for Ulisse's belated homecoming. The first half of the opera is exposition, and its extended soliloquies make for a slow beginning, but the intensity of the performances Audi draws from his singers compensates for the lack of dramatic action. The second half, however, takes off with lightning speed and drives the production to a powerful climax and dénouement. Again, all of the singing actors are superb -- Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Ulisse, Diana Montague as Minerva, Toby Spence as Telemaco, Alexander Oliver as Iro, Mark Tucker as Eurimaco, Monica Bacelli as Melanto, Adrian Thompson as Eumete, and Jaco Huijpen, Christopher Gillett, and Brian Asawa as the suitors -- but Graciella Araya is in a class by herself. Her Penelope is astoundingly powerful. Wilson's ensemble is less colorful than Les Talens Lyriques, and Simon's set here is less visually spectacular, but these muted elements allow the human aspects of Monteverdi's most emotionally intimate opera to shine.
Orfeo is hugely successful musically and scenically; Stephen Stubbs leads the ensembles Tragicomedia and Concerto Palatino in an especially lively and dramatic reading. Standouts in the cast include David Cordier as La Musica, Brigitte Balleys as La Messagiera, Mario Luperi as Caronte, Suzie le Blanc as Ninfa, and especially Bernarda Fink as a vocally radiant but profoundly troubled Prosperpina. John Mark Ainsley gives a beautiful musical account of Orfeo, but he lacks the charismatic stage presence to be fully effective as the center of the opera. Similarly, Dean Robinson as Plutone and Russell Smythe as Apollo don't have the dramatic weight to be convincing deities; the absence of strong male dramatic presences undermines the opera's ultimate emotional impact. There are other compensations, though, particularly Simon's set, which is dominated by a pool of water that covers most of the stage. It's wonderfully symbolic, first as a sylvan pond through which Orfeo wades, carrying Euridice's body, and later as the Styx, which bursts into flame as Orfeo attempts to cross it.
Audi believes the brief dramatic scene Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is Monteverdi's greatest work, and he directs it with the loving attention to detail and to the relationship between music and movement that bears out that conviction. His direction is graceful, simple, and wrenchingly powerful. Guy de Mey, in the central role of the Narrator, sings beautifully and manages to convey the complexity of his relationship to the lovers locked in mortal combat, both as an objective storyteller and a passionate witness to their tragedy. David Porcelijn leads the ASKO Ensemble in an incandescent performance.
Taken individually, these performances are breathtakingly effective, and as a complete record of Monteverdi's surviving operas, the set is a towering achievement that should be of strong interest to any lover of opera or of early music.