Michael Tanner

Crowning glory

Monteverdi’s last and greatest secular masterpiece, L’Incoronazione di Poppea, is an opera we get far too few chances to see. The last time it was performed on stage in London was in the largely brilliant ENO production of 2000, which has never been revived. That does have the consequence, however, that one is always pleasurably shocked by it anew, and though the Zurich Opera’s one-night stand at the Royal Festival Hall was only a partly acted concert performance, the impact was undimmed.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt brought with him the Orchestra La Scintilla of Zurich Opera, around 30 players of authentic instruments, and a starry cast, the most surprising feature of which was possibly the tenor casting of Nerone, whom we are used to hear sung by a counter-tenor or a mezzo, even, in the case of Harnoncourt’s first recording, by a soprano. Considerations of authenticity aside, the higher voice has the sovereign advantage of making the outrageous love duets still more sensuous by having a lot of singing in thirds, with almost Straussian effects of lushness. Still, with the casting we had at the Festival Hall, I wouldn’t want to complain.

Harnoncourt’s versions of the score have varied a good deal over the decades, as they are perfectly entitled to do. Mainly, he is still austere, with a limited range of colour, and that only employed sparingly. He seems above all concerned with the clearest and most forceful enunciation of the text, and the only case of vocal occlusion was in the Prologue, when the Tadzio-like Amore of Tino Canziani, a member of the Zurich Boys’ Choir, was momentarily swamped. Later on, when he came back (the only goddess to put in a second appearance, which has always seemed to me a rather casual handling of them by the otherwise brilliant librettist Busenello) to prevent the murder of Poppea by her rejected suitor Ottone, he was far more impressive, as (s)he needs to be: this is the point in the action where gods can’t be seen as only metaphors for human drives.

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