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Apotheosis of the madrigal

RODERIC DUNNETT enjoys 'L'incoronazione di Poppea'
at London's Royal Academy of Music


Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea springs almost directly from the madrigal. You can hear it at every turn, whether the frivolities of the wooing page boy, the appeals of Seneca's friends or the shades of 'baci soavi e cari' in Nero and Poppea's eternal cooings : Poppea, like its progenitor, L'Orfeo, is, in effect, the apotheosis of the madrigal, a new form leaping fully fledged, like the goddess Athene, from the old.

The seventy-five year old Monteverdi (1567-1643) had many a tussle with his librettist, Busenello, about the general thrust of this, which can be viewed as the first historical opera : just how cynically destructive should the triumph of the puerile Amore -- one of the conniving divinities whose disputative Prologue opens the action -- over Virtus and Fortuna, be? But the librettist did him proud. Comedy nestles alongside tragedy (the randy teenage page's Cherubino-like wooing, for instance, comes positioned with perfect wry irony, exactly as Seneca expires; here, rightly, director William Relton has them cavorting above his grave, just as later Nero and Poppea conjugate almost in Octavia's presence).

Not just Shakespearean cunning in the libretto's overall design, but Shakespeare-like language and imagery abounds. Around the time Monteverdi established himself as an opera composer Stratford's bard was serving up Lear, Macbeth and Coriolanus.

Poppea (Delphine Gillot). Photo © 2002 Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale
Poppea (Delphine Gillot). Photo © 2002 Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale

Now Nero's (and Monteverdi's) sex-goddess has popped her head up again at London's Royal Academy of Music in a production by the actor William Relton that is as intelligent and lucid as their recent Falstaff was cluttered and dreadful. Time for accolades. Whereas the Guildhall School's wonderfully effervescent staging of Chabrier's L'Etoile seriously lacked voices of note, the Royal Academy has some superb young voices -- real strength in depth : not a tangible weak link, even in the relatively minor roles, and a clutch of young performers one would gladly welcome onto any British stage, whether in Handel or anything. Most of them (not quite all) oozed personality and stage confidence too : it bodes well if they are intending stage careers.

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Copyright © 13 December 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK


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