Posts Tagged ‘Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto’

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.


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Handel’s Giulio Cesare was first performed in Braunschweig in 1725. The Caro Sassone would probably be happy to see that he still draws the audiences in Lower Saxony. In co-operation with the Staatstheater Braunschweig, Alan Curtis and his Complesso Barocco are offering there a series of three operas by the composer: Giulio Cesare, Deidamia and Ariodante. Curtis and his international cast have already performed Giulio Cesare in Vienna and Paris and Lyon is their next and last station. This is the first time I have heard Curtis and his ensemble, but I probably have all his recordings of Handel operas, of which he is an uncontested advocate. His orchestra has a pleasant warm, polished sound, but his recordings tend to skate in the surface of the drama. That was not my first impression this evening – the overture displayed some raw energy, Cesare had exhilaritingly fast tempi for his entrance aria and his public display of reproof on seeing Pompey’s severed head. I have also found interesting his flowing choice of pace for Non è si vago, here made to sound more flirtatious than lovesick, but the thrill was soon gone. One would never guess from the well-behaved orchestral playing that Sesto is speaking of revenge in L’angue offeso or that Cleopatra erupted from resignation towards death to gleeful triumph in Da tempeste. Although singers arguably have the greatest share of responsibility in theatrical expression in baroque opera, the orchestra is nonetheless vital to create the atmosphere, especially in Handel – and you just had to look at those musicians to see that sometimes they were not in the same wavelength of their soloists, beautifully as they played – and the obligato parts in Se in fiorito and Va tacito e nascosto were indeed superbly played.

The edition adopted this evening required many adjustments – the harp solo in “Lydia”‘s seduction scene was given to the harpsichord, I haven’t seen four horns for the opening choir, Curio does not exist and, quite understandably, some arias have been cut (Sesto’s La giustizia, Tolomeo’s Belle dee and Sì, spietata, Cesare’s Qual torrente, Achilla’s Se a me non sei and Nireno’s Chi perde un momento) and some were shorn of their B sections (Cleopatra’s Venere bella, Cornelia’s Non ha più che temere and maybe Sesto’s L’aura che spira).

Karina Gauvin has been called “the Renée Fleming of baroque music”, and the nickname is apt enough given the roundness and fullness of her soprano, far richer in nuance than most singers in this repertoire. She achieved the feat of producing a particular tone colouring for each aria – lightly provocative in Non disperar, weightily tragic in Se pietà, contrastingly resignated and desperate in Piangerò and exuberantly imperious in Da tempeste (an unforgettable display of technical abandon). Curiously, the more teasing Tutto può and V’adoro, pupille were quite short in charm. She is one of those singers who always sings on the interest and not on the capital, especially in her high register, what is healthy for her, but a bit frustrating for the audience, considering what her amazing resources might be in their full powers. In any case, a must hear.

Emöke Barath’s voice is a bit high for the role of Sesto, but the singer is irreproachable.  Her tonal quality is pure and pleasant, her coloratura is fluent, she is a vivid performer, has a good ear for ornamentation and, considering her natural Fach, could aptly play her registers for a more “boyish” effect in key moments. I’m curious to hear more from her. Romina Basso too was an impressive Cornelia, her contralto natural and flexible and her use of the text very expressive. Sometimes, her ornamentation is too flamboyant for Cornelia’s lamenti and she could relax a bit more on stage (her whole posture is often too tense), but make no mistake: she is a very special singer.

I wonder if Marie-Nicole Lemieux shouldn’t trade roles with Romina Basso. Her voice is quite soft-grained in its middle register and sometimes unfocused out of her effort to produce incisiveness in it – and her register break is abrupt. The excruciatingly difficult arie di bravure had their labored moments and her interpretation involves highlighting the text to the expense of melodic flow in a rather Fischer Dieskau-ian manner. When the circumstances were favourable, she could be really touching, such as in Aure, deh pietà. All in all, she has an irresistible personality and is never less than fully committed and by the end the sum its greater than the parts.

Countertenor Filippo Mineccia has a strong high register, stamina and flexibility, but his passaggio is a bit problematic. Johanes Weisser (Achilla) has developed a lot since I last heard him. Now he consistently sounds like a baritone and he sang with panache and very clear divisions in forceful voice. There was something tense in his presence, but he channeled that efficiently into his arias. Last but not least, I was sorry for the loss of Nireno’s aria, for Milena Storti was really, really great in her crisply delivered recitatives in a dark yet focused contralto.

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Sometimes I feel that opera stage directors are the loneliest people in the world. They have to be orphan and friendless; otherwise someone would tell them “I know that this idea seems to work IN YOUR MIND, but the truth is…” And yet, no, they go all alone to their pitfalls – except for the audience, who is dragged to the directors’ ordeal without getting, unlike them, a penny for that.

When Jens-Daniel Herzog appeared on stage to take his bow in the end of the performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto at the Semperoper, he seemed to be a nice guy, what makes it doubly sad that no-one, absolutely no-one had ever told him “just don’t” when he decided to indulge in some absolutely proven operatic sins, such as staging the overture, reserving loud action for extras while singers and orchestra are trying to make music, devising difficult movements and/or postures in vocally challenging passages or creating an atmosphere on stage in a different mood from the one portrayed by the music. But nothing – absolutely NOTHING – is so hideous as having soloists and chorus members perform cute choreographies while singing. First of all, these people rarely really know how to dance; second, it looks silly; thirdly, it looks silly.

What makes Herzog’s staging doubly frustrating is the impression that this is the flower power version of the Glyndenbourne production, in which the choreographies were meant in the context of Bollywood aesthetics. Here the action is set in Egypt all right, but in the 1940’s. Where the cute steps fit in is a mystery to me – the all-about-decolleté Cleopatra in a Muslim country makes even less sense! But let’s not concentrate on details. Many a misfire in Herzog’s staging is shared by almost every other director who tackles a Handel opera, especially not trusting the power of music and introducing all sort of funny little parallel actions to “entertain” the audience while what seems bo…ring music to them is being played in the background.

All that said, it would be unfair if I gave the impression that Mr. Herzog is the target of what is ranting about the general state of affairs. In this production, the cast seemed to be having fun, acted with conviction and many of the complex movements were actually well executed. I confess I have particularly enjoyed the idea of showing Lidia/Cleopatra during V’adoro, pupille as a crooner in some sort of nightclub, where the solo violinist in Se giulivo is one of those musicians who play for customers trying to entice them to give him some money.

The staging’s flamboyance contrasted to conductor Alessandro de Marchi’s rather inflexible approach. Having an opera house orchestra follow period practices in baroque music is always risky business, and de Marchi succeeded in immerse his musicians in the right stylistic universe. However, this was a compromise one could feel. There was a sense of straight-jacket in the slimmer sound picture of the traditionally lush-toned Staatskapelle Dresden and the fast tempi showed precision without true animation. I do not mean that the performance sagged in any way – it just lacked dramatic conviction. Although it is always good to find some energy in Cornelia and Sesto’s gloomy mourning, a little bit more suppleness would have helped to boost expression in a performance that seemed primarily about getting things rightly done. Although a die-hard purist would be nauseous, for instance,  at some of John Nelson’s performances at the Metropolitan Opera House (I’m particularly referring to the broadcast with Jennifer Larmore, Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels) , at least the ordinary opera-goer would definitely get some thrill out of the proceedings. If you’re playing Bach in a Steinway, it will be useless trying to make it sound like a harpsichord – better make it in the grand manner like Martha Argerich does.

The edition here adopted involved as expected the trimming of the B section of some arias, but this has been judiciously done. Tu la mia stella sei was fortunately preferred to Tutto può donna vezzosa, but the lovely Venere bella (among other numbers) was deleted, while Nireno’s aria has been kept.

Laura Aikin is an experienced Cleopatra, but the years have  robbed the roundness of her top register. It is still an extremely charming voice, but everything around a high g sounds a bit hard and unflowing. And to think that in 1999 she was an amazing Zerbinetta in Sinopoli’s Ariadne auf Naxos in Milan! Let’s hope she was just not in a good day. The rather awkward cadenze written by the conductor (for all soloists) tented to highlight the problem. Her Se pietà was pleasing if not heartfelt and she met with confidence the challenge of Da tempeste, in spite of some shrieking high options.

Casting a high mezzo as Cesare is a helpless idea. It is hardly Anke Vondung’s fault that she seemed a bit out of sorts almost all the time. More generously endowed singers, such as Tatiana Troyanos, experienced the same problems in this role. Nevertheless, this performance made that German mezzo rise in my esteem. She offered more or less fluent coloratura, has good trills, expert messa di voce, phrases tastingly and – if she does not sound heroic at all – her singing of the difficult fioriture in Al lampo dell’armi while performing a difficult stage fight with five extras deserves enthusiastic praise.

Christa Mayer is evidently no specialist in baroque opera, but she diligently adapted her Wagnerian contralto to the circumstances and offered some lovely moments as Cornelia, especially in Son nata a lacrimar. Pity that Janja Vuletic was not at the same level – her Barbarina-like soprano simply does not work properly in this lower tessitura and her wayward breath support involved many stances of unfocused tone and approximative pitch. She is a very good actress, though, and cuts a believably boyish figure on stage. Max Emanuel Cencic’s countertenor is not as rich in the lower reaches as Bejun Mehta’s or David Daniels’, but his firm-toned, vivid singing is very effective in this role, not to mention that some of his forceful high notes are truly exciting. Cristoph Pohl’s strong and flexible bass was ideally cast as Achilla and Christopher Field’s bright and flexible countertenor was finally worth the inclusion of Nireno’s Chi perde un momento.

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