I’m not sure whether it was director Pierre Audi’s intention or a lack of chemistry between the principals but the 1994 Amsterdam production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, while extremely elegant, lacks gut punch. The stage has been extended to mostly cover the pit leaving the band (only seventeen musicians) in a triangular space cut into the extended stage. Much use is made of a staircase into the pit for entrances and exits. The large stage area is sparsely furnished with objects suggesting, rather than being, rocks, furniture etc. The costumes, by Emi Wada, are odd indeed ranging from a nurse who appears to be wearing sculpture to a Seneca who wears what looks like an old bedspread that the cat has used as a scratchy toy. Within this fairly artificial and abstract concept Audi manoeuvers his singers in complex ways (or at least he seems to when the video director lets us see) supported by a complex and atmospheric lighting plot. It really ought to be terrific but it just doesn’t get there.
I think the problem lies with the singers playing Poppea (Cynthia Haymon) and Nerone (Brigitte Baileys). Both sing well enough but Haymon is cool going on frigid and Baileys is overwrought and just plain unconvincing. This may be what Audi wants. For example, the final, extremely beautiful, duet starts with Poppea and Nerone on opposite sides of the stage not even looking at each other. Nerone finally makes his way to her side of the stage but I don’t think there is eye contact at any point. It’s quite passionless and typical of the interactions throughout the opera. It’s a shame too because the supporting cast is uniformly very good indeed. Harry van der Kamp’s Seneca is everything it should be; a lovely genuine bass voice and great acting, and Ning Liang has gorgeous tone and real dignity as the scorned empress. All the other roles are really well cast and performed too. Christophe Rousset conducts and his small group of musicians from Les Talens Lyriques sound suitably authentic.
The video direction is by Hans Hulscher and I hate it. The first two acts are mostly shot in super close up and often from very odd angles. It’s really difficult to tell what Audi is trying to project and the extra space and possibilities suggested by the stage layout are mostly lost on the DVD. To be fair, he relaxes a bit in Act 3 and gives us a bit better idea what is going on. Technical quality is excellent, especially for a 1994 recording. It was filmed in high definition and the DVD picture reflects that. The DTS 5.1 sound too is vivid and well balanced. There are English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Italian subtitles. The first disc includes a short explanatory feature with music director and stage director. The documentation is fairly standard.