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Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra [Photo © Hans Jörg Michel courtesy of Salburger Festival]
05 Oct 2012

Cecilia Bartoli Comes, Divides and Conquers

Cleopatra, one of few female seductresses in operatic history to emerge not only alive but empowered in the final act, is a fitting role for Cecilia Bartoli in her first season as artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival.

G F. Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto

A review by Rebecca Schmid

Above: Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra [Photo © Hans Jörg Michel courtesy of Salburger Festival]


She has assembled a dynamite new production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, which premiered in May and returned to the Summer Festival, with the early music ensemble Il Giardino Armonico under the Italian singer’s old friend Giovanni Antonini alongside a handpicked cast and the French-Dutch directing team Moshe Leiser/Patrice Caurier. The opera, which premiered at the King’s Theater in 1724, was one of Handel’s most popular in its time and still stands out from his other operas for its stylistic variety and gripping drama. A libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym adapts the story of Caesar’s amorous and political alliance with Cleopatra after his arrival in Egypt in 48-47 BC but changes historical details freely. He also packs in a high concentration of da capo arias in keeping with the taste of Londoners in the 18th century.

Handel’s writing for Cleopatra includes some of his most beloved numbers, and Bartoli meets expectations in this production (seen at the Haus für Mozart on August 27) with natural charisma and authority. Although her giggling first entrance bordered on kitsch in Leiser and Caurier’s bold vision of a modern-day Egypt occupied by the European Union, she managed to pull off their tongue-in-cheek direction as she pranced onstage in a leopard jacked and boots during her first aria “Non disperar, chi sa?,” playing with her unrivalled technique to manipulate coloratura passages for clear dramatic purpose. This ability made itself most apparent in the firework runs and carefully timed turns of “Dal Tempesta,” sung under an oil tower as the future pharaoh resolved her energy anew in the third act. Bartoli amused without affectation as a disguised servant, teasing the blue-suited bureaucrat, Caesar (Andreas Scholl) after her aria “V’adoro, pupille” in which takes off on a missile. Her slow aria “Piangero la sorte mia,” which she sings in captivity by her ruthless brother, Ptolomeo (Christoph Dumaux), brimmed with devastated emotion as she spun out silver threads of coloratura

Scholl, who sings as many arias as his female counterpart, impressed equally with the clear timbre and refined phrasing of countertenor as well as his caricature-like dramatic portrayal of the role. “Dall’ondoso periglio,” in which the Roman emperor prays to God to be reunited with the woman for whom he has grown so much affection, featured pearly cascades and pianissimi that floated sumptuously to the back of the theatre. The singing of acclaimed mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter was a model of legato and inner expression as Cornelia, the widow of Pompeo whom Ptolomeo has beheaded. Her chemistry with the rising star Philippe Jaroussky in the role of Cornelia’s son, Sestus, who slays the Egyptian pharaoh in revenge, was as touching as the musical polish they both brought to every moment onstage. Jarsoussky revealed impeccable taste in the ornamentation of the da capo to his aria “Cara speme, questo core.”

The voice of Dumaux was slightly less penetrating, but he gave a powerful account of his aria “Domero la tua fierezza” in which he declares that he will curb Cleopatra’s pride, his rival for the throne. He also executed some very athletic moves in his vindictive aria “Si, spietata, il tu rigore.” The baritone Ruben Drole was a strong-voiced Achilles, Ptolomeo’s advisor, and the alto Jochen Kowalski brought comic flair to the role of Nirena, Cleopatra’s maid. Peter Kalman made for a valiant Curio, Caesar’s tribune. The idiomatic articulation and richly nuanced performance of Il Giardino Armonico nearly asserted the ensemble as a character in its right. Antonini maintains a strong bass that nevertheless allows every instrument to sing. The musicians cried with Bartoli in her pleading aria “Se pieta di me non senti.”

Leiser and Caurier also deserve much credit for a staging that ingeniously updates the mix of comedy and tragedy in Handel’s opera, casting a critical eye toward modern European politics while allowing the singers to indulge in just the right amount of slapstick. I found myself laughing with the production rather than at it even through the most gregarious of gestures, when as when Caesar is given a pair of 3D glasses during the prelude to “V’adoro, pupille,” casting Cleopatra’s appearance as a scene within a scene. The burning tires, Christmas-lit oil tower, and final scene of a tank rolling onto the recreation of a cobblestoned street in Salzburg (sets by Christian Fenouillat) made for a biting but riotously amusing commentary on the current state of affairs. Even the dancing soldiers (choreography by Beate Vollack), whose classical moves contrasted paradoxically with their rifles, were perfectly in place. Costumes by Agostino Cavalca reflected the imaginative scope of the directors, with corn rows for Ptolomeo and a series of sexy costumes for Cleopatra in which the Intendantin still managed to preserve her class.

Rebecca Schmid

Click here for cast and production information.

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