Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (1642) marks one of the very foundations of opera. Revolving around real historical characters, the Roman emperor Nero, his love for Poppea, the betrayal of the empress Octavia, and death of the philosopher Seneca, Monteverdi pits human love, ambition, and intrigue against the fates. The set, a symbolic part-globe, and the costumes, drawn from various ages, suggest--very much in the way of the surreal 1999 film of Shakespeare's Titus--that the concerns of ancient Rome are timeless. With the emphasis on the text (the music alone does not hold the attention for 150 minutes), conductor René Jacobs depends upon an excellent cast to bring the production alive. Patricia Schumann dominates the stage, her Poppea warm, sensual, and likeable, without being entirely trustworthy, an effective counterpart to Richard Croft's Nero. Darla Brooks brings just the right degree of vivacious gullibility to Drusilla, while Curtis Ryam offers eccentric comedy as Arnalta. As Ottone, Jeffrey Gall is a man acutely tormented by love. While this was recorded at the 1993 Schwetzinger Festspiele, there is no sign of an audience, the many close-ups suggesting this performance was specially given for video.
The DVD includes subtitle options for English, French, and German, but no special features. The booklet is well documented but does not contain the libretto. The sound is good PCM stereo while the 4:3 image (not 16:9 as stated on the packaging) is better than VHS but otherwise unremarkable. --Gary S. Dalki
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