Reviewed by James Karas
The Metropolitan Opera wrapped up its seventh season of live broadcasts with an excellent production of Georg Friedrich Handel’s Giulio Cesare. The David McVicar production was originally seen at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2005.
Cesare has a convoluted and undramatic plot and although the music is quite beautiful, much of it sounds the same and there are numerous repetitions. That places a heavy load on the director to make the almost five hours’ duration an enjoyable experience rather than an endurance test.
McVicar has an interesting conception and a superb execution that make for an extraordinary production. First, he moves the time of the plot from ancient Rome to 19th century Egypt. The conquerors are not Roman but British and we are put on a more familiar ground of imperialist activity.
We get the familiar insignia of British imperialist occupiers: red coats, white helmets, epaulets on the shoulders and medals on the chest. The locals wear fezes and aprons with a mixture of beautiful dresses and ornate costumes for the upper crust.
McVicar invests the production with sheer theatricality from beginning to end to make the static plot fluid and exciting. He does not shy away from humour, provides plenty of choreography, fight scenes and movement to create a marvelous production.
Set Designer Robert Jones places the action between two rows of columns with a view of the sea at the back. The backdrop is changed frequently to indicate the different settings and the effect is dramatic.
After the curtain rises and during the overture, we see billowing waves and the arrival of ships. The ships pull into the harbor and Caesar disembarks onto the stage for the opening scene. Intelligent stage design.
Costume Designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel goes to market in her design of clothes. We are told that Cleopatra alone has eight costumes and clearly, no expense was spared in outfitting everybody. Money and design talent talk and the costumes, especially those of the women are gorgeous.
Handel did not skimp in providing the leading roles with lots of notes. Caesar, Cleopatra, Cornelia, Sesto, Tolomeo and Achilla are all given major arias and scenes. Of course, the opera is long enough not to leave anybody out.
Soprano Natalie Dessay gave the best performance in the crowded field. She probably has the best music but she had complete control of the role and not only sang with assurance but danced, romped around the stage and was vocally and physically impressive.
American countertenor David Daniels sang the role of Caesar. Initially he appears in a red coat, epaulets and a brass breastplate as if he wants to emulate a bodybuilder. He gets rid of all that until near the end and concentrates on singing. His phrasing and ornamentations are amazing and his Caesar is splendid within the boundaries of Baroque characterization.
I was most impressed with Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, the wife of the murdered Pompey. Dressed in a black gown, the statuesque blonde beauty is a stunning image of the grieving widow. She sang beautifully and gave an emotionally and vocally convincing Cornelia.
Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was the perfect foil as Cornelia’s son Sesto, the young man who vows vengeance for the murder of his father. A fine performance.
French countertenor Christophe Dumaux sang the creepy Tolomeo who beheaded Pompey, while the lower vocal range of the opera range was occupied by baritone Guido Loconsolo as Achilla, the Egyptian general.
The success of the production lies obviously in Handel’s beautiful music, which despite its many repetitions in the arias and a pervasive impression of sameness in many places, is quite splendid. Full marks to Conductor Harry Bicket and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
After that, credit goes to the outstanding cast with the three countertenors and a mezzo trouser role that only few opera houses can afford.
But even with all that, the production may have ended up with some yawn-inducing segments if it were not for McVicar’s sense of physicality and theatricality. For example, both Tolomeo and Achilla lust after Cornelia and they attempt to seduce her. The attempt could be left to the music and the words. Instead, McVicar has her assaulted and almost raped as she is grabbed from behind, thrown to the ground and a hand is put up her dress.
A passing comment on the work of Gary Halvorson, the Director for Cinema. He did his level best to ruin the production. Let us hope that the Met will eventually find a grown-up to do the job instead of a child who thinks these broadcasts are video games.____
Giulio Cesare by Georg Friedrich Handel was shown Live in HD on April 27, 2013 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events