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Recordings

G. F. Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto
28 Aug 2006

HANDEL: Giulio Cesare in Egitto

Sometimes an invidious comparison cannot be avoided, and such is the case with two recent DVD versions of Georg Frederic Handel's masterpiece, Giulio Cesare.

G. F. Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto

Sarah Connolly, Angelika Kirchschlager, Danielle de Niese, Christophe Dumaux, Patricia Bardon, Christopher Maltman, Rachid Ben Abdeslam, The Glyndebourne Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment,

Opus Arte OA0950D [3DVDs]

$44.99  Click to buy

TDK offers a July 2004 performance at the Liceu in Barcelona. Directed by Herbert Wernicke, this staging deserves acknowledgment for its intriguing design and committed performers. When viewed, however, alongside the OpusArte release of the 2005 Glyndebourne production directed by David McVicar, the Liceu production pales. Sure to be a classic of opera on DVD, the Glyndebourne set is a treasure trove: generously proportioned, with two bonus features and one act per disc, an incomparable cast and orchestral performance, and a production design of delightful invention and dramatic strength.

Giulio Cesare requires a most sophisticated approach, as it veers from over-the-top comic villainy (Tolomeo and his henchmen), past heartfelt pathos (Pompey's widow and son, Cornelia and Sesto), and through heroism and seductiveness (Giulio Cesare and Cleopatra). The miracle of McVicar's direction for Glyndebourne resides in his complete mastery of these shifting tones. The performers play to the audience, but never wink at it. Each character has an individual profile, yet each interacts with the others as a true ensemble.

As McVicar maintains in the bonus feature centered on him ("Entertainment is not a dirty word"), the director feels at home with the da capo structures. Some other directors throw up their hands and let the stage picture grow stagnant during the longer arias. Others go in the other direction and throw on too much distracting business. McVicar employs character-based movement and brilliant choreography (by movement director Andrew Gorge) with an effectiveness that makes the arias essential and vivid pictures of emotional states suspended in time.

Robert Jones spartan set design features classic baroque elements, such as horizontal, rotating blue poles for an ocean effect, with a few handsome props. Brigitte Reifenstuel's costumes manage the neat trick of revealing the essence of each character while placing the character's in McVicar's chosen time setting of colonial, mid-19th century British rule. The taste of "Bollywood" McVicar injects in some numbers makes for an appealing spice.

But description can never serve to convey the sheer fun of this production. It has to be seen and heard. And what a cast McVicar assembled. Sarah Connolly redefines masculinity in her strutting and then besotted Cesare. Patricia Bardon and Angelika Kirchshlager make Cornelia and Sesto, respectively, into truly involving roles, instead of the tiresome victims they can often be. Christopher Maltman tears into the twisted psychology of Achilla, in love with Cornelia and realizing too late the depth of Tolomeo's duplicity. Rising counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux for once gives a Tolomeo without undue emphasis on his effiminancy, so that he can effect a truly worthy antagonism. Some may feel that Rachid ben Abdeslam prances a bit too much as Nireno, but his solos have an adorable quality that make them stand out much more than they usually do.

Opus Arte apparently considers Danielle de Niese, the Cleopatra, to be the star of the show, as she gets a 20 minute bonus feature, a sort-of "day in the life" vignette highlighted for your reviewer by a sequence in which she cheerfully babbles on about how much fun she is having with the show, while speeding down a country lane, her bracelet-laden hands casually draped over the wheel. And OpusArte is correct, for as consistently great as this Giulio Cesare is, it seems to get a rocket boost of energy when de Niese comes on. Her voice, though entirely satisfactory, has no special qualities. But her charisma and physical allure - not to mention her dancing ability - establish her as a performer to watch for.

The performers were given body microphones for the filming (as seen in the De Niese feature). The resulting audio picture offers little or no sense of perspective. The voices are well out in front of the excellent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, led with both precision and passion by William Christie. Some may wish for a more realistic stage sound.

Giulio_Cesare_TDK.gifThat sort of sound can be found in the Liceu production. Unfortunately, neither the orchestra nor the cast in Barcelona compares well with Glyndebourne's. Michael Hofstetter seems to lead a smaller ensemble; at least the sound is scrawnier and less flexible. Countertenor Flavio Oliver often cannot be heard well enough to establish Cesare's authority, although he has some handsome runs. Elena de la Merced's Cleopatra, unalluringly dressed in heavy brocades, has a pleasant voice but little of the allure that the role demands. The effete Tolomeo, Jordi Domenech, sings with that nasal whine of some countertenors, which underline the unpleasantness of his character, perhaps too well. Maito Beaumont does well as Sesto, and if one can overlook a most unfortunate striptease by the pale and plump Oliver Zwarg, he sings an effective Achilla.

For many, the star of the show will be Ewa Podles as Cornelia. In heavy black "widow's weeds" and a fiercely shellacked head of hair, Podles here stays mostly in the middle range of her voice, with little opportunity to display her pyrotechnics. Bolder casting, with Podles and Oliver switching roles, would have made for a more interesting, posibly even credible, production.

Wernicke has the action take place on a shiny black slab, with a reflective surface dangling above. He makes good use of this for many interesting stage pictures, in particular in act two when a maze of walls appears on stage and characters can be seen reflected above as they enter, exit, and dart around.

Elsewhere, the production offers ideas that don't coalesce into a meaningful interpretation. A "puppet" crocodile clambers around throughout the opera, sometimes menacing and sometimes as sweet as a puppy. The booklet essay proposes an explanation. Perhaps Opera Today readers will understand it better than yuour reviwer did. Especially unfortunate was the decision to have Cornelia and Sesto retain Pompey's head in every scene. This only serves to distance the viewer from the emotions that Handel wishes to express.

Wernicke decided to honor a practice of Handel's time by inserting a small number of arias from other works of the composer, including two for the relatively minor character of Curio and an additional aria each for Cesare and Tolomeo in the last act. Handelians can take up sides on the effectiveness of these additions and substitutions. For all others who merely want to enjoy the best possible version of Giulio Cesare, the OpusArte Glyndebourne set will be first choice.

Chris Mullins

Related Link:

HANDEL: Giulio Cesare in Egitto

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