Handel’s Arminio was written for Covent Garden and while admired by the cognoscenti at the time it wasn’t a commercial success. It’s a well worked three act opera seria with nothing much to distinguish it from others of its ilk. For what it’s worth it’s set during Augustus’ attempt to conquer the land between the Rhine and the Elbe but its themes of death or glory and love versus duty, all with an impausible reconciliation ending, could easily be set anywhere. Actually it almost wilfully ignores history as the libretto claims it happened in 9AD when the real Arminius (Hermann the Cherusker) decisively defeated Varo (also in the opera) in the Teutoburger Wald ending Roman hopes of extending the Empire beyond the Rhine.(*)
Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse is in many ways it’s a classic opera seria. The good guy roles are written for castrati but the baddies here too go to high voices; a castrato and a tenor. But what sets this apart is that it was written for Rome where it premiered in 1730. At that time women were not allowed on stage in the Papal States so the two female roles were played by castrati en travesti. In recreating it in 2012, l’opéra national de Lorraine chose to cast all five castrati roles with countertenors, producing a cast like nothing I’ve ever seen or heard.
Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea was the “shabby, little shocker” of the 17th century. It’s about lust, obsession, murder and revenge. So, it’s a bit surprising that all too often it comes off as elegant but deadly dull. That’s rather the case with Pierre Luigi Pizzi’s production filmed at the Teatro Real in 2010. Despite having Danielle di Niese, something of a specialist Roman sex kitten, in the title role it’s all rather bloodless. It starts off OK with the gods and goddesses of the prologue being wheeled about on platforms but after that he gets rather static. Sets and costumes are almost unrelieved grey/silver tones (including a rather fetching pair of silver lamé booty shorts for Damigella) although Nerone himself seems to be dressed as a giant black chicken in Act1 (know you of such a bird, Baldrick?). The only real breaks in the (literal) monotony are the bright red robe Ottone borrows from Drusilla for the attempted murder and the sparkly gold outfits that appear for Nerone and Poppea at the end. It’s also rather dark most of the time.
So closes Aribert Reimann’s 2010 opera Medea. It’s a two hour piece in four “pictures” that premiered at the Wiener Staatsoper in 2010 and the Blu-ray/DVD recording is taken from that initial run. Actually there’s a good deal more nightmare than dream in this version as, I suppose, there is in just about any version of the Medea story. This one draws on Franz Grillparzer’s version for the libretto and is entirely concerned with events after Jason and Medea reach Corinth. It’s unusually sympathetic to Medea herself with Jason and Kreon very much the villains.