Ravenna 2024 Review: L’Incoronazione di Poppea
Roberta Mameli & Federico Fiorio’s Singing Excellence Are Not Enough to Carry the PerformanceBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Studio B12 di Gianpaolo Guarneri)
The duet “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo,” which brought Teatro Aligheri’s presentation of “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” to its conclusion, was rightly met with enthusiastic applause from the audience. The sensitivity, emotional depth and detail that countertenor Federico Fiorio and soprano Roberta Mameli were able to bring to their singing was breathtaking. Their voices beautifully blended, highlighting the strength and serenity of their love for each other. The pain, the emotional instability and violence that had played out over the past three hours evaporated in an instant as an air of calm contentment and love settled over the stage. It was one of those wonderful experiences that makes theatre so special. Unfortunately, it was not indicative of the performance as a whole, which meandered along and struggled to ignite the passions.
The problem was not due to a single weakness but to a combination of factors that littered the presentation in all its aspects, which was not to say there were not moments of excellence, not least in the performances of Mameli and Fiorio as Poppea and Nerone and, to a lesser extent, Federico Sacchi in the smaller role of Seneca.
Pizzi’s Staging Lacks Direction
The scenery consisted of a single, fixed set, designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, which provided a pleasing backdrop against which the drama played out. Consisting of ornate columns in black and grey with a delicately crafted marble effect on golden plinths, a marble bench and marble lounger, or maybe it was a bed, and a leafless tree set in the middle of the stage, it successfully conjured up a sense of antiquity. Pizzi supplemented this with sympathetic costume designs, which were not tied to any single period but were aesthetically in accord with the period.
Pizzi, who also directed the performance, was not so successful in his management of the singers, who appeared to be left largely to their own devices. This gave rise to numerous awkward moments, not least in the love scenes where Poppea and Nerone would automatically move to the bed-cum-lounger and struggle to take up positions to suggest an amorous liaison. They were often clumsy, and Poppea’s flowing dress exacerbated the problem as she had to keep adjusting it in order to move, which destroyed any sense of sexual tension and thereby undermined a fundamental pillar of the drama. The decision to bring Fortuna, Virtù and Amore back on stage for the final scene was a major error; while the idea behind it was understandable, the effect was distracting. Certainly, it would have been better for Poppea and Nerone to play out the scene alone, accompanied only by Monteverdi’s wonderful music.
The musical director, Antonio Greco, directing the Orchestra Monteverdi Festival, Cremona Antiqua, opted for a graceful interpretation that was not at all unpleasant on the ear. Unfortunately, however, it lacked the necessary energy and rhythmic vitality to propel the drama forward or promote the emotional onstage tensions, and thereby compounded the effect of the lackluster staging.
Fabulous Singing From Fiorio and Mameli
With soprano Roberta Mameli cast in the title role, one could be assured of a clearly thought-through interpretation underpinned by natural vocal beauty and an excellent technique in which the vocal line is clearly articulated and the emotions convincingly fashioned. With her colorful palette, excellent control and wonderful agility, she is able to bring such subtlety and strength to her presentation so that the audience is able to sit back and relax without that sense of nervousness that can creep in with singers whose singing is less secure.
Unusually, her Poppea was a wholly sympathetic character. She did not come across as vengeful, treacherous, or particularly manipulative; rather, she emphasized the loving side of her character, especially in the love duets with Nerone, in which her vocal beauty and sensitive interpretations could not fail to convince that she was anything other than loving and compassionate.
In 2018, OperaWire reviewed a performance of Lotti’s “Polidoro” at Vicenza in Lirica, and drew attention to a promising young countertenor called Federico Fiorio. Five years later, and he is now firmly established as a singer of note, which he brilliantly confirmed with his gripping performance in the role of Nerone. He possesses an agile, secure voice with a clear, crisp, intense quality that has the ability to pile layers of increasing brightness, one on top of the other, heightening the emotional impact. His technique has been expertly honed so that the vocal line is intricate and detailed, replete with subtle dynamic and emotional inflections, which he successfully used to develop his character. The listeners were further drawn into his interpretation by the positive energy and ease with which he was able to imbue his singing.
He was a confident, unreflective Nerone who moved across the stage with a self-indulgent and regal air, and although the physical connection with Poppea did not work at all, their singing was beautifully matched.
A Mixed Supporting Cast
Nerone’s wife, Ottavia, was played by mezzo-soprano José Maria Lo Monaco. She created an expressive and emotionally strong reading that successfully captured her pain and anger. Her final aria, “Addio Roma, addio patria, amici addio,” in which she voiced her bitterness and heavy sadness, was given a particularly vicious twist when, instead of departing her beloved land into exile, she stabs herself and falls dead on the stage. It is not in the libretto, but it worked well.
Countertenor Enrico Torre cut a proud and earnest figure as Ottone. His opening aria, “E pur e io torno qui,” allowed him to show off his interpretative skills in good effect with a rendition that captured his character’s heartfelt longing and pain. The voice has a pleasing, homogeneous quality, but he needs to pay more attention to furnishing the vocal line with greater detail, as there is a tendency for it to become a little monotonous over time. Likewise, he needs to add more subtlety to his acting, which was too reliant on stock postures.
Federico Sacchi, with his richly colored bass, made for a splendid Seneca. Exuding moral clarity, gravitas and great fortitude, he was able to dominate the stage. His confrontation with Nerone produced a superbly crafted contrast on both a musical and personal level. His dark tones emphasized his serious nature, which tellingly conflicted with the light, airy sound and frivolous nature of Nerone.
In general, contralto Candida Guida sang within herself for most of the performance and failed to take full advantage of the aria “Oggi sarà Poppea,” in which her approach was overly conservative. She needed to take more risks to bring her character to life. However, the lullaby “Oblivion soave” was nicely rendered and captured its dreamy melody while showing off the attractive coloring of her voice.
Soprano Chiara Nicastro produced a pleasing performance as Drusilla. She possesses an appealing voice, which she used successfully to develop a sympathetic portrait of her character.
Tenors Luigi Morassi and Luca Cervoni had fun in the roles of the two soldiers, with whom they engaged enthusiastically, if not always successfully; while their comedy was well-meant, it was at times a little too superficial to generate much laughter. Their singing, however, was energetic, resonant and lively, and they kept their fist act scene moving at a rapid pace. Morassi also played the roles of the second family member and Lucano, which allowed him to show off his fine acting skills. Cervoni was also called upon to play multiple roles, as Liberto and the Consol, in which he also convinced.
Baritone Mauro Borgioni showed off his versatility with a string of appearances in the roles of Mercury, the third family member, the Tribune and the Littore, which allowed him to display his worth. His singing was clear, resonant and authoritative.
Essaying the role of the Nurse was countertenor Danilo Pastore, and it was a role that suited him very well. In the past, he has tended to be associated with more serious characters for which he produced refined, elegant portraits that sat at an emotional distance from the drama. In this case, however, he really seemed to be enjoying himself, playing up the comedy for all it was worth. His acting was lively and animated and had the audience laughing along, while his singing was playful and expressive and exhibited a welcomed sense of freedom. He was also cast in the role of the first family member.
Soprano Francesca Boncompagni has been building a tidy career for herself with some fine performances in mainly, but not only, baroque roles. Unfortunately, she failed to create the same pleasing impression as Venere and Fortuna. Her voice sounded weak and a little ragged, which I assume must have been due to an illness.
Soprano Paola Valentina Molinari made for lively Amore with a strong presence. Possessing a secure and agile voice, she was able to bring depth and variety to her character. She also played the role of Valletto, in which she showed her skills in mimickery to good effect.
Soprano Giorgia Sorichetti was cast in three small roles as Virtù, Damigella and Pallas Athene. She made a solid impression with her pleasing characterizations and the appealing timbre of her voice.
Overall, it was a presentation that failed to convince, yet, on the other hand, had much to offer. All the singers, for example, put in convincing, if not always high-quality performances, the orchestra was pleasant to listen to, although failed to assert itself dramatically and Pizzi’s sets were aesthetically strong, if somewhat passive.