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Elena de la Merced & Andreas Scholl (Photo copyright Opéra de Lausanne)
22 Apr 2008

A Cut Too Far…..the new Giulio Cesare in Lausanne

With what might (if one were risking facetiousness) be termed a “false-set” of four countertenors in the cast, this was always going to be an intriguing production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare for aficionados of a voice type which has revolutionised the perception (and popularity) of baroque opera over the past 15 years.

G. F. Handel: Giulio Cesare
Opéra de Lausanne
Performance of 18 April 2008

Giulio Cesare (Andreas Scholl), Cleopatra (Elena de la Merced), Cornelia (Charlotte Hellekant), Sesto (Max Emanuel Cencic), Tolomeo (Christophe Dumaux), Achilla (Riccardo Novaro), Nireno (Florin Cezar-Ouatu), Curio (Yannis François).
Direction musicale: Ottavio Dantone
Mise en scène: Emilio Sagi
Assistant mise en scène: Curro Carreres
Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne

Above: Elena de la Merced & Andreas Scholl
All photos copyright and courtesy of Opéra de Lausanne


And there was certainly vocal quality on display in all ranges at the first night of Lausanne Opera’s new production directed by Emilio Sagi, and supported by the modern instrument Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne — the latter bravely attempting if not always succeeding in adjusting to the period style under the baton (and harpsichord) of Italian Ottavio Dantone. The title role was sung by the German Andreas Scholl, Tolomeo by Frenchman Christophe Dumaux, Sesto by Max Emanuel Cencic and Nireno by Romanian Florin-Cezar Ouatu. Matching them in the quality stakes were Elena de la Merced as Cleopatra, Charlotte Hellekant as Cornelia and in the minor roles of Achilla and Curio, Riccardo Novaro and Yannis Francois gave strong support.

In a time when productions of Cesare seem two-a-penny on almost every continent, it was reassuring to see a full house at the distinctly “municipal” feeling Salle Metropole, where Lausanne Opera has temporarily decamped to during renovations of the old house. This venue has, despite its dreary appearance, some advantages for baroque opera — a relatively small space which suits the smaller voices and orchestras, and a compact stage area that is easy (and economic) to dress appropriately. And dress it Sagi and his designer Moreno certainly did, sometimes to excess when it came to the supernumeraries of slaves, soldiers and dancing girls. There were moments when the principals were in danger of being swamped by the waving arms (of both varieties) of what appeared to be the entire roster of Lausanne’s staff performers seeking reason for this week’s pay-packet. Costumes were elegant and exotic in a restrained way — black torso armour and matching flowing skirt-tunics for the Romans and long robes in white and gold for the Egyptians.

The sets were pleasing, leaning heavily on a mix of black, gold, and white, with just the right amount of generalised Egyptiana, and some creative use of veils and gauzes to both illustrate and conceal the action when required. Compared to some other recent productions both in Europe and the US, it was the sort of creation that one would be happy to meet again anytime whilst possibly forgetting in the interim.

However, what many in the audience will certainly not forget, nor forgive, was the decision to do away with the usual two intervals between the three Acts. This resulted in mass shuffling and fidgeting on the decidedly municipale seating as the end of the nearly two hour long first half drew near. Handel knew what he was doing pacing it the way he did, and despite the swingeing cuts to arias, da capos and recitative that were also imposed, it just didn’t work in this format.

Happily, the singers were of a standard that helped to assuage the discomforts. Andreas Scholl, in one of his rare appearances on the opera stage (to date he only appears to sing this role and that of Bertarido from “Rodelinda”), was back to excellent vocal form after some less happy performances on the concert stage last year. His very distinctive, almost instrumentally steely, tone was produced easily and without strain, and had moments of real beauty. He will never be an actor, but in this small- scale and busy production he wasn’t required to hold the stage or eye for any great amount of time and could concentrate on some admirable music making. Best when allowed to just stand and sing, Scholl produced a clarion Presti omai and a suitably sepulchral Alma del gran Pompeo with some nicely judged colouring. Less successful were his interactions with Elena de la Merced as Cleopatra where the sexual chemistry was non-existent, and there was an oddly perfunctory-sounding Se infiorito. However, all was redeemed when he stilled the house with an exquisitely shaped Aure, deh, per pieta in the final half.

De la Merced as Cleopatra was something of a pleasant surprise in this role, her normal stamping grounds being in the later worlds of Mozart, Verdi and Rossini. She was a little hesitant at first but soon the voice bloomed into an admirable, even feisty, Queen of the Nile offering dynamic variation and subtlety, enabling us to believe she was both enthralled by Cesare, yet still working the power game. An attractive slim woman with a strong stage presence her teasing Non disperar was deliciously shaped with some sparkling ornaments in the repeated A section, and her Piangero la sorte mia was long-breathed and desolate. By the final scenes (cruelly truncated in a way that made a nonsense of some of the libretto) she seemed to tire a little and her Da tempeste was a little laboured - but no doubt she will grow into this role if she wants to confirm it in her repertoire.

Contrasting with Scholl’s rather awkward stage presence was the young French countertenor Christophe Dumaux who took, yet again, the role of the wicked and deceitful Tolomeo, and made it his own. Despite being hampered by some silly costuming and spending too much time encased in a tall gauzed-walled sedan chair like an enraged bluebottle, his body language and dramatic sense were first rate. He rattled through the showpiece L’empio sleale with panache and the requisite temper. His vocal technique is firmly based, his tone round and centred, and if not a voice of great beauty, it is certainly one of dramatic sense and great agility. He is currently probably the Tolomeo of choice for many major houses. Sadly, much of his music was cut and, after the battle scene, we never see him again — even his death at the hands of the young Sesto is merely briefly reported. Handel intended that Sesto should avenge his father as a dramatic conclusion to the whole story we have witnessed. We missed Tolomeo’s blood on the carpet.

C_sar_3-167.pngCharlotte Hellekant, Christophe Dumaux, Max Emanuel Cencic

For some, it was the appearance of the much-publicised and promoted male soprano turned countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic, in the pivotal role of Sesto, which was the major interest of the evening — following hot on the heels of his well-received boundary-pushing CD of Rossini arias. Judging from that CD and earlier ones, this was going to be a stratospherically exciting debut in the same role that launched David Daniels to stardom at the Metropolitan nearly ten years ago. Cencic’s voice is again strong and firm-toned, extremely well-schooled, and sits somewhat higher than either Scholl or Dumaux. There was some vigorous and accurate coloratura on display, plenty of volume for this small house, and some nicely judged long lines in, for instance, the melodious Cara speme in which the very highest notes were, for some reason, feathered rather than projected. What there wasn’t, at least on the first night, was much in the way of passion or tearing agony — either vocally or physically. Most puzzling of all was his almost zombie-like non-reaction to the abuse and imprisonment of his mother Cornelia –not a flicker of emotion passing across Cencic’s face. For now, this jury is still out — finely honed recordings do not an opera star make.

The long suffering Cornelia was sung by the experienced Charlotte Hellekant who replaced the previously-billed Stephanie d’Oustrac and made as much as she could of a part that is always slightly fighting the relentless doom and gloom of her music. She is well versed in this role but on this night didn’t quite rise to the heights previously accomplished. Supporting the principals, Francois as Curio and Novaro as Achilla were more than adequate– the latter singing strongly with a nicely placed baritone and obviously a local favourite. Strangely, Achilla was allowed to keep both of his arias — a puzzle when much more lovely music was being left by the wayside.

To add insult to injury, the opera was also shorn of its final, redemptive chorus, leaving us with the inevitable feeling of: “is that all there is?” Cutting one’s coat according to one’s cloth is understandable, but not always commendable.

Sue Loder © 2008

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