04 April 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Monteverdi: “L’incoronazione di Poppea”

Not many conductors in musical history have had a repertoire as broad as Karajan’s. But he is not usually associated with the music of Claudio Monteverdi.

In November 1953, he conducted three concerts with the Vienna Symphony and the “Singverein” performing a very remarkable programm: two five-voice a capella madrigals by the young Monteverdi (All’hora i pastor tutti and Ecco mormorar l’onde), two songs by Orlando di Lasso and Gesualdo, three songs by Debussy and after the interval Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony!

In Spring 1963, Karajan being managing director of the Vienna State Opera conducted Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” in a major production with Sena Jurinac, Gerhard Stolze, Gundula Janowitz and Hilde Rössel-Majdan. He used the new arrangement by musicologist Erich Kraack – in the early 1960s, baroque operas were not yet generally performed in historically authentic versions. Unlike his upcoming opera productions Karajan wasn’t responsible for the staging but engaged Günter Rennert, a director he had already worked with on Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and whom he valued.

Rennert insisted on a comical intermezzo between the serious acts in the tradition of the baroque opera. Karajan was against it and cancelled the intermezzo after the premiere (but not the name of a singer in the programm booklet who only had appeared in the intermezzo). The production was an unexpected success. Sena Jurinac who sang the role of Poppea ranked it among Karajan’s “finest achievements as artistic director.” She recalled:

“I remember the duet with Nerone and Poppea. A bare stage, with a white rug, Poppea in red, everything else dark. And then as this wonderfully quiet music slowly grew intensity, the two hands coming gradually together. It was utterly simple, and absolutely spellbinding.”

Today, the production is regarded as an important contribution to the Monteverdi renaissance after World War II. Karajan conducted three performances, then Hans Swarowsky took over. The live recording on 1 April 1963 is the only document of Karajan conducting Monteverdi.

Ernst Haeusserman: “Herbert von Karajan. Eine Biographie.” Verlag Fritz Molden, Wien-München-Zürich-Innsbruck. 1978

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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