Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Giulio Cesare: Dà pace all'armi!

David McVicar presents Handel's Giulio Cesare as a witty, knowing fable about imperialist projects giving way to cooperation based on mutual respect between individuals and cultures. At least, this is how I read it, and I believe such a reading is supported by the highlighting of Handel's oft-reiterated motif of the conquered conquering. The theatrical exuberance of the production, mingling styles of stagecraft, costume, and choreography from different eras and cultures, is winsome, although I found the comedy occasionally broad for my taste. There is substance as well as style: Caesar gets a veranda of power, and the abundant divans and draperies are definitely modeled on Ingres rather than India itself, let alone Egypt. There is, to be sure, a suggestion of dysfunctional realities under the bright surface.  Caesar's military presence steadily grows on the glittering sea, and Sesto is very nearly destroyed by the hollow corruption of the military ethos he embraces in his pursuit of vengeance. Still--a fable this remains, with men and women, the dead and the living, the rulers and ruled, all united in the final tableau. Harry Bicket, with impressive energy and good humor, led the Met orchestra from the podium and the harpsichord. Subtle shifts in tempo and dynamics shifts were used well, I thought, to chart the characters'--and the drama's!--changes in mood. A curious lack of chemistry between the singers subdued the energy of the evening despite accomplished performances, but I found the evening nevertheless enjoyable.

Vivid musical characterization is one of Giulio Cesare's many virtues. Making the most of his music and text, Guido Loconsolo was the evening's Achilla, who sang with impressive sonority and sensual menace. His accomplished charting of the choleric general's changing moods was aided by the best Italian of the night. Christophe Dumaux, as Tolomeo, looked like a Mughal prince and carried his role with panache. If his singing was somewhat monochromatic, it was nevertheless technically accomplished, and delivered with convincing fury. His impressive "L'empio, sleale, indegno" started in a spitting rage before settling into princely contempt.

As Cornelia, Patricia Bardon was consistently strong vocally; her characterization seemed less consistent, but this may have been a choice, equating grief with madness. There are at least hints that Cornelia, for all her desperate passion in embracing the role she chooses, may be consciously suffering from the lack of roles open to her. "Priva son d'ogni conforto" was elegantly done, and Bardon's pairing with Alice Coote's Sesto in "Son nata a lagrimar" made for one of the highlights of the evening. (Perhaps that duet is inevitably one of the highlights of the opera, but it was well sung here.) Coote proved her mastery of communicating emotion through the voice. This was my first time seeing her in a staged role, and my first time hearing her in full health, and I was delighted. Her "Cara Speme" focused audience attention from its opening, and Coote wrestled with Sesto's despair without a shadow of maudlin sentimentality, her tone even and controlled, her gravi impressive. "Svegliatevi nel core," although less intimate, was also accomplished, demonstrating a wide range of vocal color.

Natalie Dessay's performance as Cleopatra was courageous but vocally inconsistent. I sometimes felt that her Cleopatra, while well-acted, was somewhat at odds with the mischievous flapper persona of the production. Dessay's more fragile, proud, and wary Egyptian queen was fascinating, but I failed to see the logic of her attraction to the careless conqueror. Perhaps it was partially the ebullience of the production, as well as that of Handel's music, that made Dessay's thin tone seem out of place. Still, "Se pietà di me non senti" was shaped with great beauty; Dessay's intelligence of phrasing was unquestionable, and her floated notes carried great poignancy. Surprisingly effective was her triumphant "Da tempeste," complete with dance routine. Though this performance may have been on thin ice, I do hope Dessay continues to display her considerable artistry in performance. David Daniels, a veteran in the title role, sang securely and with good phrasing. And, I must confess, I was left wondering why I wasn't more drawn to his Caesar. It's true that his timbre doesn't have the weight or darkness of some other Caesars, but he didn't lack gravitas. Perhaps it's just that it was hard to imagine his kind and gentle Caesar as the ruthless intelligence behind De Bello Gallico, as the ambitious crosser of the Rubicon, as the sexual predator turned suitor for Cleopatra's affections and (at least in Handel's opera) partner in her projects. The final tableau is presented as a triumph over afflictions past; but this performance failed to give the sense of worlds at stake.

*Note: the publishing of this post was delayed because I wanted to add some curtain call photos, which were then eaten by a treacherous library computer. Alas, woe is me, etc. Imagine, if you will, Gentle Readers, Alice Coote in Edwardian suit, Dessay in hoopskirts, and David Daniels in a blinding breastplate.


  1. I was very tempted the buy the DVD of this production (especially since it has a mezzo in the title role) but was glad I held off. I thought the production was kind of cute but it struck me as more G&S than Handel and quite frankly by the middle of the opera I was getting tired of all the schtick. I was pleasantly suprised by Dessay (I was expecting a train wreck) However, I cannot stand a countertenor in this role (quite frankly there are very few roles where I can stand a countertenor). I had the same reaction to Daniels this time as the first time I saw him in the role about 5 years ago--he starts signing this heroic music with his girly voice and I wanted to laugh. I would have much preferred Connolly (who was in the original production and is on the DVD) or JDD. Of course there will never be another Cesare like the angel Tatiana Troyanos.

  2. Hi, if you found this production lacking in chemistry, make sure to watch the Glyndebourne DVD with Connolly/de Niese instead of Daniels/Dessay! There's plenty of convincing chemistry between that amorous couple. Though I'm not a huge fan of de Niese's singing I feel the role was made for her and she acts (and dances) it very well, teasing the equally mischoevous Tolomeo etc. And don't get me started on Connolly as Cesare... She is THE Cesare, there will never be another like her. I tend to agree with "anonymous" above that countertenors don't fit for heroic masculine roles as their voices tend to sound quite, well, girly (or boyish). Connolly beats Daniels in heroic masculinity hands down, vocally and aesthetically. So if you enjoyed this production overall but found it lacking in certain aspects, I'm sure you'll enjoy the original cast DVD.

  3. This production was great. The best singers were: Alice Coote, Christophe Dumaux and Natalie Dessay. It is great that Natalie Dessay managed to overcome the problems she had with her voice.

  4. @Anon I found myself wondering if perhaps the humor was made broader for American audiences than in the original iteration. On the whole I found it effective. I wonder if you know the countertenor Max-Emanuel Cencic? I do find Daniels' timbre a bit light for the heroic Cesare, but there's quite a variety of vocal tone among countertenors, I find.

    @Tove Thanks for the comment, and for the detailed recommendation of the DVD! I love Sarah Connolly, so the fact that I have yet to see that in its entirety is really an unforgivable oversight. My feelings on countertenors are mixed: I get irritated if roles written for women en travesti are given to them, but for the castrati roles, anything's fair game. My personal preferences, admittedly, tend to be for mezzos as well: gravi make me melt.

    @Anon II Glad you enjoyed, and glad (if somewhat surprised!) that Dessay made such a creditable showing.


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