L'Incoronazione di Poppea, Barbican Hall, London <br></br> The Hanover Band, St John's Smith Square, London

She'll put a spell on you...
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After the glitter and dazzle of Les Arts Florissant's diverting production of Les Paladins, Concerto Vocale's spare, semi-staged performance of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea was something of a challenge. Thankfully, it repaid concentration. No one can say what Poppea should sound like. (All available sources are either corrupted or tantalisingly incomplete.) But René Jacobs's new performing edition - which includes the discredited but hugely popular Pur ti miro - is a pragmatic and persuasive compromise.

Though Jacobs's own continuo playing is highly idiosyncratic (nearly every chord was a third inversion), his Poppea was sensuous, well-paced and richly characterised. One brief section of unconvincingly orchestrated brass aside, I'd buy this edition. And despite some obvious presentational differences between those who had sung in the recent Champs-Elysées production and those who had not, this semi-staging went by noticeably more quickly than English National Opera's brutally edited pop-art production of 2000.

Musically, it was immeasurably superior. Having cherry-picked his players for this project, Jacobs can feel happy that he has helped to create what must be the definitive early string sound for successive performances of Poppea. The purity and warmth of tone, delicious decoration, broad legato phrasing and dynamic articulation of violinists Bernhardt Forck and David Plantier, viola players Laura Johnson and John Wilson Meyer, cellist Werner Matzke, bassist Richard Myron, and gamba players Juan Manuel Quintana and Hernan Cuadrado was breathtaking. With some excellent continuo playing from Shizuko Noiri (archlute), Enrique Solinis (theorbo), and Mara Galassi (harp), and lovely contributions from the cornetts, dulcian, sackbuts, organ and recorders, this was a benchmark instrumental performance of an operatic score.

Whether Poppea's true love is Nero or the power that will accompany her marriage to him is unclear in Monteverdi's score. Still, the synopsis in the Barbican programme baldly states that Poppea "finds the throne more attractive than Nero himself". Is this Jacobs's opinion? Someone must have forgotten to tell Veronica Cangemi, who stepped into the role for this performance and gave a more subtle and generously nuanced account of Monteverdi's heroine, despite being hampered by a vocal score. Though Cangemi's pretty soprano lacks the spinto steel of an ideal Poppea, her ability to capture the character's petulance, sensuality, stubbornness and vulnerability was admirable. That Poppea was a woman capable of casting a spell beyond the means of mere physical beauty was evident.

As Nero, Zoryana Kushpler, another score-carrying step-in, was less satisfying. Kushpler's coloratura is excellent, her bright tone thrilling. But her intonation is wayward and she squandered the sinuous suspensions of Pur ti miro. She was also comprehensively upstaged by fellow mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter (Octavia) and counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo (Ottone). Zazzo's easy stage presence, fluid singing and coolly beautiful voice made Poppea's cuckolded husband more sympathetic than usual. Von Otter's Octavia was thrillingly vicious, wild and expressive, her account of Addio Roma electrifying. The minor roles too were, for the most part, impressively sung; with Dominique Visse's Nutrice, Tom Allen's Arnalta, and Amel Brahmin-Djelloul's Valleto among the highlights. Only Antonio Abete's stiff Seneca disappointed, though whether this was down to his throat infection or not was hard to tell. How I wish we'd been able to see the full production. But how glad I am to have seen the absolute involvement of Jacobs's orchestra.

Long regarded as the poor relations of the British early music scene, The Hanover Band are currently undergoing an extreme makeover. Their formerly lacklustre strings are gleaming and engaged, their woodwind sublime, their brass bright and flexible, their percussion alert. Is it something in the waters of Brighton? Or have they finally found the right conductor?

In the first of a three programme series - called Mozart's World - for St John's, Smith Square and The Old Market, Hove, The Hanover Band achieved what is if not downright impossible, then certainly improbable: a dramatic, vital, illuminating and properly surprising performance of Mozart's Prague Symphony (K.504) and Haydn's Surprise (No. 94). Under Paul Brough, the orchestra tilted these familiar scores in new directions; teasing different colours and nuances and textures out of repertoire that listeners and players alike have taken for granted, and marrying the lightness of original instruments with a grand symphonic arc. Joined by tenor John Mark Ainsley for arias from La Clemenza di Tito, Idomeneo and Don Giovanni, they also demonstrated what fine accompanists they are; minutely sensitive to Ainsley's eloquent, artful phrasing, and imaginative in response to his dramatic recitative. A thoroughly brilliant and absorbing performance, sensationally conducted by Brough.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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