David McVicar’s production for the Glyndebourne Festival can be seen on DVD in what may be the best seller in Handel’s Giulio Cesare’s videography. It is an imaginative, funny production that made Danielle de Niese (“the dancing Cleopatra”) a household name. The fact that it has been revived at the Met without this soprano, who has appeared in the old John Copley production (premièred in 1988 with Kathleen Battle, Tatiana Troyanos and Trevor Pinnock), seems to be explained by the fact that Cleopatra is the kind of leading role in a scenically interesting production safe enough for Natalie Dessay after her problematic Traviatas at the Met.
I have to confess that I was not eager to see the French diva in this opera at this point of her career. In the video from Paris, her performance did not strike me as really convincing. First, the role sits a bit low in the soprano range (Troyanos herself recorded it for Karl Richter and also Magdalena Kozena for Minkowski), an area of Dessay’s voice in which she hardly sounds seductive or regal. Second, the kind of clear vocal production one expects from a singer in the baroque repertoire did not really come to her anymore as spontaneously as it used to do before. Actually “third” is more related to the way Laurent Pelly chose to portray Cleopatra than to the way Dessay embodied the concept. However, the fact is that her Cleopatra is the shining feature of the Met’s revival (technically a new production this side of the Atlantic).
Although she is less skilled a dancer than De Niese, this seems less important in the way Dessay re-invented the role. Here Cleopatra is more Claudette Colbert than Beyoncé, shrewd rather than alluring, overwhelming rather than persuasive – and you would take her side far more easily rather because of this. She was in also in exceptionally good voice this evening. Her high register particularly fresh and more ductile than it has been in a while. She has always had a fancy for over-decoration in repeats and some numbers – Tu la mia stella sei – for instance, sounded a bit deformed rather than embellished. She deserves high praises for capturing the character development and creating a new vocal and expressive “personality” for the moment Cleopatra stops being “Lydia”. As a matter of fact, her Se pietà, which I had already heard in the concert for the 10th Anniversary of Le Concert d’Astrée, was an example of how to build up intensity. That was truly the highlight of the evening. One could say that my positive impression might have something to do with low expectation, but I would disagree. All in all, she was simply the most interesting Cleopatra I have seen live in a theatre.
Alice Coote’s is an interesting choice for the role of Sesto – her mezzo has a warm yet light sound but is based upon a a very strong and positive low register. I am not sure if hers is an ideal voice for trouser roles in Handel operas, but I would gladly hear her in roles like Leocasta (Giustino) or Elmira (Floridante), for the appealing, vulnerable quality of her singing. Her Cara speme was exquisitely sung – and she teamed with Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) for an ideal Son nata a lagrimar. Unfortunately, the Irish contralto could not stand the comparison with herself on the DVD. This evening, her middle register lacked color, the vibrato could be problematic and some excursion upwards quite gusty.
Among these evening’s countertenors, Cristophe Dumaux (Tolomeo) took pride of place for evenness, precise divisions and panache. One could say that David Daniels (Cesare) had a bad start, but the fact is that the two opening numbers are very tough singing. The American countertenor has now a very recessed low register and gets tired in long florid phrases. When the affetto is gentler, his legato and warm tone are most effective, especially in Aure, deh, per pietà. Guido Loconsolo tackles fioriture quite commendably and has a pleasant voice, not exactly dark, but that seems to be the rule in this part.
When John Nelson conducted Giulio Cesare in the Met, he did not try to make any adaptation in the sound of the house orchestra. He just let it create the required effect within these musicians’ possibilities albeit with a clear view of what Handel wanted. In the broadcast with Jennifer Larmore, there is no absence of drama, forward movement and excitement. This evening, although Harry Bicket took pains to keep things within the limits of Handelian style, this was achieved with a severe loss in expression. The orchestra sounded monochrome, uninvolved and entirely devoid of any sense of drama. Battle scenes, oaths of revenge, utterances of despair had only pretty, pellucid and not entirely clear sound in the background. I have seen Maestro Bicket conduct Handel in Munich – and the results were very different from what I’ve heard this evening.