Klaus Michael Grüber’s production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, recorded at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2000, is both stylish and stylised. The stage and costume designs, by Gilles Aillaud and Rudy Sabounghi, are extremely elegant and, at times, very beautiful. The Seneca scenes at the beginning of Act 2, set in a sort of lemon grove, are especially effective as ai the use of painterly backdrops looking like Greek vase paintings reinterpreted by a fauviste. The director complements the designs with a somewhat formalised acting style that fits rather well. He also makes some changes to the narrative to tighten up the drama, dispensing with Ottavia’s nurse and ending with Pur tí miro, rather than Poppea’s coronation. Coupled with excellent acting performances it’s a straightforward but effective way to tell the story.
The singing and characterisation are excellent across the board. Anne Sofie von Otter is a totally convincing, rather sexually ambivalent, Nerone and is very well matched by Mireille Delunsch’s very beautiful, rather restrained Poppea. The rather asexual costumes seem to ask all sorts of questions about passion in gerneral and the Poppea/Merone relationship in particular. Denis Sedov is quite an unusual Seneca. He looks quite young but sings with great gravitas. This is a production that treats Seneca in his own terms, not as Valetto would have us see him. Charlotte Hellekant’s Ottone is rather good too. She has an interesting voice with lots of colour in the lower register that’s very pleasant to listen too. The only relief from the “elegance” is Jrean-Paul Fouchécourt’s Arnalta. He clowns it up a bit but even he is quite constrained relative to some other productions. Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble are in the pit and produce the sound one would expect from one of the best HIP bands around. They are a constant reminder of just how amazingly good this nearly 400 year old score is.
Vincent Bataillon’s video direction is extremely sympathetic. Good examples are Poppea’s initial entrance and the Seneca scenes in Act 2. He’s not afraid to linger on a long shot, even though the DVD video quality is only just good enough to support that. Long shots in low lighting are one of the best arguments I have seen for Blu-ray! The sound quality (PCM stereo and Dolby surround) is also quite acceptable but not exactly thrilling. There are no extras on the disk but the booklet, besdides a track listing, synopsis and biographical material, includes a good piece by Minkowski on how and why he and Grüber made the aesthetic choices that they did. Subtitle options are French, English, German and Spanish. This disk is available separately or as part of a very good value boxed set of performances from Aix. The other three are an Entführing aus dem Serail with Malin Hartelius and Matthias Klink, the world premiere recording of Philippe Boesmans’ Julie and a 2003 La Traviata with Mireille Delunsch and Matthew Polenzani.
This is a very worthwhile version of Poppea. It isn’t slapstick funny like David Alden’s version or as sexy as Robert Carsen’s but it has its own charms. Worth a look.