Composers: Monteverdi
Compositions: The Coronation of Poppea
Performers: Pinchgut Opera/Erin Helyard
Catalogue Number: Pinchgut Live PG010 (2 CD)

The score for Monteverdi’s final opera and arguably greatest masterpiece, L’Incoronazione di Poppea, first performed in Venice in 1643 is – at least in the two extant sources – skeletal in parts, unfinished in others and often features inferior music clearly written by assistants. There is therefore ample opportunity for a conductor such as Erin Helyard to present one among many possible realisations of this wonderful work.

I was fortunate some years ago to hear two legends of authentic performance practice – René Jacobs and Nikolaus Harnoncourt – direct live performances of Poppea. On that occasion, Jacobs’ version featured three continuo groups and an instrumentarium comprising organ, harpsichord, cornetts, trombones, viols, harp, violins, cello, bassoon, theorbo, arch-lute and baroque guitar. Their distribution was very much of the mixed consort variety: lots of colour. By contrast, Harnoncourt opted for a lot more strings, together with shawms, dulcian, recorders, trumpets, organ, harpsichords, harps, theorbos and baroque guitar.

Using Clifford Bartlett’s edition as a basis, Helyard has created “discreet accompaniments here and there” and encouraged improvisation from his instrumentalists. For the instrumentation, he relies on “descriptions of the time” as well as various historical sources from Praetorius, Monteverdi et al. So, there are “violins, violas, a cornetto, harpsichords, an organ, lutes, theorbos, guitars, percussion, a violone, a cello, a viola da gamba and a lirone.” There is also a great use of percussion. Fewer winds, then, than either Jacobs or Harnoncourt. And yet this recording, again captured live, bursts with colour and passion. The instrumental playing is probably the best I’ve heard from The Orchestra of the Antipodes yet, so stylish and alive to Monteverdi’s meticulous settings of the text.

But the singing is something else, especially from principals Helen Sherman (Poppea/Fortuna), Jake Arditti (Nerone), Natalie Christie Peluso (Ottavia/Drusilla/Virtù) and Owen Willetts (Ottone). Mention must also be made of tenor Kanen Breen’s delicious portrayals of the nurses Arnalta and Nutrice.