If you are an opera lover unsure whether to venture beyond your sweet spot of late 18th and 19th Century works into earlier works by such as Monteverdi, father of the art form, I advise you to start here in the most unlikely place: with the final duet of the opera, "Put ti miro, pur ti godo"; its luscious suspensions and yearning eroticism are as sensual as anything by Puccini.
Nearly forty years since it was made, this recording wears extraordinarily well. The main objection to it by modern purists is that Harnoncourt filled out orchestral parts too much, though for novice especially the added richness of texture will probably be welcome even if some might demand leaner, sparer sounds. Otherwise it is wholly recommendable in that Harnoncourt took pains to ensure that authentic-sounding instruments were played in the correct style; furthermore, he assembled some outstanding solo voices ideally suited to this plangent, dignified, often surprisingly passionate music. Elisabeth Söderström sings beautifully while suggesting that Nero is always essentially unhinged; it is that central truth which lends such a delightful irony to that last duet; the Venetian audience would have been well aware of what happened next: Nero murdered his new wife, Rome burned and he committed suicide. Poppea's ex-husband Ottone succeeded as Emperor, albeit very briefly. Thus an opera performed in Venice satirises the moral depravity of its rival city-state Rome.
Monteverdi was concerned to depict the lives, lusts and lunacies of real people. Before I knew anything much about opera, I bought an EMI sampler and among the random treasures which caught my imagination was the vocal ensemble "Non morir, Seneca", here sung with great urgency and emotional sincerity. Poppea is exquisitely sung by the pure-voiced Helen Donath, a heroine and role-model to Renee Fleming for good reason. The large role of Ottone is handsomely sung by countertenor Paul Esswood in his prime, his voice warm and flexible. There are two fine basses in Enrico Fissore and Giancarlo Luccardi who sings a grave, noble Seneca. The supporting cast is excellent, featuring some distinguished names who had important solo careers: Cathy Berberian, Kurt Equiluz and Philip Langridge.
The only drawback to the bargain issue on "Das Alte Werk" is the absence of a libretto; otherwise this remains a highly recommendable version of Monteverdi's last and greatest work which has not really dated.