I have more often than not greatly enjoyed Monsieur Pelly’s theatrical inventiveness, and he started out with a clever enough conceit. In tandem with set designer Chantal Thomas, Pelly has set the whole shebang in a Cairo Museum warehouse. Industrial shelving is chock full of ancient inventory, the male chorus are maintenance workers and caretakers, and the overture serves as accompaniment to a large statue of Caesar ascending imperiously from the depths via a freight elevator. This likeness is received with awe and deference by the massed workers who lovingly roll it to a focal point upstage amid the other ruins.
The character Caesar bursts forth from behind the image to start the action, and having completed his opening aria, a shelf full of singing ancient busts regale us with the chorus, their cartoonish lips mouthing the words. Fun fun fun. Little did we know that, ten minutes into the show, we had seen the last really witty staging idea of the long evening.
Mostly the visuals wore poorly, vying with each other over which was dull, duller, or dullest. Have you ever tried staring at industrial storage structures for four hours? I mean, other than at Costco? If they could bottle this look, they could take Sominex off the market. There were half-hearted attempts to vary the nondescript setting by having things roll. A gigantic prone Pharaoh rolls on and off, then panels with paintings, the aforementioned busts, potted plants, museum cases, even Cleo-as-Lydia gets wheeled on rather unceremoniously on a dolly. So much was in motion that the “Rawhide ” theme came to mind (“Rollin,’ rollin,’ rollin’
Keep those mummies rollin’
The one minor variation occurred when the back loading doors rolled(!) open to reveal the pyramids at Giza, which are on the edge of town while the museum is in the city center, but hey, we were grateful for the sandy color and the faux sunshine that broke the intermittent dingy gloom. Among the oddities of the design was the parade of famous large oil paintings of 17th century bucolic scenes, the Queen of the Nile, and even Handel himself that are assuredly not in the Cairo collection. When Caesar performed “Al lampo dell’armi” he pranced around a pastoral backdrop reminiscent of Watteau, and “accompanied” by a corresponding seated sextet of frilly-frocked lady musicians.
Pelly made his best contribution of the night with his telling costumes, which found the principals in period dress and the chorus in their contemporary work clothes. The fey Tolomeo was seemingly got up as a sinister Sister-Man in a floor length tunic with sparkly bodice and slits up the skirt that allowed him to showcase his splayed bare legs at will for the amusement of a certain audience demographic. Caesar, Cornelia, Sesto at al were beautifully outfitted in character-specific attire. The ‘little shocker’ (although not shabby) was Cleopatra’s diaphanous, sexy white frock. Merely form-fitting (and flattering) in Act One, it was subsequently re-arranged so that “Lydia” flashed a bare left breast for the entirety of Act Two.
Joël Adam’s lighting design was hard to evaluate. It seemed to be well intended, but all evening long the illumination was plagued by unpredictable flickering, disco style ghosting, and worst, a self-motivated color scroller which went plumb crazy during Cleopatra’s first entrance.
Most damaging to the concept was the rampant inconsistency of the real-time relationship of the various cast members. For example, it is first established that the museum workers are unaware of the statuary coming to life to tell the story. Indeed, during Sesto’s “Svegliatevi nel core”, the closing time whistle must sound because the laborers rush out of the place en masse not paying one whit of attention to the mezzo warblings. Later, they not only observed the heroine ‘en déshabillé,’ they lustily chased her offstage. Then again the men roll on museum cases bearing chairs, completely ignoring Caesar and Tolomeo as they sit in them and sing like performance art on display. Shortly after, they roll on another case and enthusiastically participate in “V’adoro pupille” by relentlessly polishing the glass as the soprano competes for attention. This copious busy-ness most usually had nothing to do with the moment. When a (chemical smoke) sandstorm suddenly swirls around the upstage pyramids, workers dutifully cover the stored statuary with dust covers. What does that mean anyway? What plane(s) are we operating in? Where the hell are we? Or rather, are we in Concept Hell?
I kept wondering if this staging meant to view the piece as Comedy? Tragedy? Fantasy? What is needed is a core of emotional truth and consistency of approach. I can recall Frankfurt’s cheeky Asterix and Cleopatra comic book take on the piece which did not fulfill every moment but was unwavering in its vision. This Paris edition lost the courage of its slim convictions early on.
Not everything misfired. Having Cleopatra clamber over the giant prone Pharaoh like a minx-as-mountain goat, towering over Tolomeo as she sang “Non disperar, chi sa?” was quite brilliant. Cornelia’s sobbing as she rolls on a box containing two potted palms, and then recovering to subsequently water and weed them during her big Act Two moment was oddly endearing. Best of all, Pelly continues to be a master of stage placement which allows his singer to be heard to maximum advantage.
Musically, the redoubtable Emmanuelle Haïm led with her customary zest and finesse and her band of period players responded with luminous, assured music-making throughout the long evening. The horn solo in Caesar’s Act Two set piece was so resplendent as to threaten to upstage the singer! Unless my ears deceived me, the tuning was lower than contemporary concert pitch. And this proved problematic.
Lawrence Zazzo is clearly an experienced Giulio Cesare, and has been highly praised in other major venues. While our counter-tenor displayed lots of pi-Zazzo in the upper reaches, and though he clearly has this music well in his voice, the lower stretches occasionally sounded muddy and muted. His stage persona was assured, his timbre individualized, and you could tell he has all the goods, but I did wish for more oomph in the bottom voice. While Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Cornelia also labored (just) a bit in the lower passages, I found her dusky, throbbing tone to be uncommonly affecting and immediate. Would that she had not been directed to clutch-lurch-and-stagger inappropriately through “Priva son d’ogni conforto. ”
Christophe Dumeaux just goes from strength to strength and he made a powerful impression as Tolomeo with his dazzling, bright counter-tenor, his assured florid vocalizing, and his take-no-prisoners physical antics. Isabel Leonard was a secure and persuasive Sesto, her flutey instrument ideally suited to this repertoire.
Nathan Berg showed off a rich and secure middle voice as Achilla, although his lowest notes sometimes spread when he landed on them too forcefully. Aimery Lefèvre was a solid Curio, and Dominique Visse proved a zesty comprimario counter-tenor who gave a real little star turn as Nireno.
And that leaves our world famous Natalie Dessay, no doubt the raison d’être for the whole enterprise. Ms. Dessay most assuredly deserves her reputation. She has prodigious interpretive gifts, she is fearless in her artistic curiosity, she pushes her boundaries just up to the edge of her comfort level, and she is in complete command of her skill set. Her slender, pointed voice is well-schooled, pliable, affecting, and spot-on in stratospheric fireworks. What the voice may lack in color and variety, Ms. Dessay makes up for in spontaneity and honest utterance.
That said, Natalie is perhaps most affected by the lower tuning. The celebrated staccato clarity of her work above the staff loses some brilliance, and her showpieces suffer from a bit of sameness. That said, she acquits herself quite commendably in her first outing with this star vehicle. Arguably her finest moment of the night was in a superbly voiced “Se pietà,” plangent, limpid, and utterly heartfelt. It was at infrequent moments like these when you knew you were in the presence of greatness. Having seen her roll in a fetal position and sing as Ophelia, and again as Violetta in Pelly’s Traviata, I do wish she had not done the same in “Se pietà. ” But, why mess with success
To whit, the potent combination of that established Star Power (and a small house) accounted for the pre-sold out run at the Palais Garnier. Natalie Dessay paired with Laurent Pelly together again! What could go wrong? The real question is, with this awesome collection of first rate talent, how could so little go right?