Giulio Cesare (1724): George Frideric Handel

Handel: Giulio Cesare

(Glyndebourne, 2005, directed by Sir David McVicar, conducted by William Christie)

One thing’s for sure. Handel certainly didn’t imagine anything quite like this. With zeppelins hovering over the Alexandrian harbour in the final act and Bollywood-style dance routines thrown into the arias, this production is joyously exuberant and thoroughly addictive. It was the first time I’d watched or heard the opera and it was the perfect introduction: indeed, I ended up feeling quite jealous of the people who’d been able to see it in the flesh.

For anyone similarly unfamiliar with Handel’s operas, the plot focuses on the arrival of Julius Caesar with his army in Egypt as an occupying force (for consistency’s sake, I’ll refer to him as Cesare). He is greeted by an unwelcome gift from Egypt’s ruler Tolomeo (Ptolemy): the severed head of his old enemy Pompey, which might suit Cesare’s political aims but proves to be immensely embarrassing in a diplomatic sense. The situation is worsened by the fact that Cesare is also greeted by Pompey’s widow Cornelia and her brooding young son Sesto, whose horror at Tolomeo’s treachery turns into a clamouring for revenge. Vowing to satisfy them, Cesare is forced into hostile relations with the young prince (although no doubt it’s useful to have a pretext to remove him).

Handel: Giulio Cesare

Sibling rivalry: Tolomeo (Christophe Dumaux) and Cleopatra (Danielle de Niese)

For his part, Tolomeo has never had any intentions of working with the Romans: he and his general Achilla are simply biding their time until they can reclaim their country. However, the Romans haven’t counted on the ambition of Tolomeo’s capable, canny sister Cleopatra, who believes the throne is rightfully hers and who is locked in a power struggle with her overbearing and debauched brother. Coming to Cesare’s camp in disguise as the courtier Lydia, Cleopatra wins his heart and secures his promises of assistance. She then sets her efforts to ensnaring the Roman general body and soul but, to her surprise, finds herself falling in love with Cesare (or, at least, with the might of Rome). And so the fate of Egypt is to be decided: not by a benevolent occupying army, but by internecine war between brother and sister, with the greatest general of the Empire tipping the balance.

Everything about the production is visually arresting: the action is split between the sober colonial sitting-room of Cesare’s camp, with its slatted French windows and fez-wearing servants, and the sumptuous Arabian-Nights fantasy of the Egyptian palace, in which Tolomeo and Cleopatra play out their ambitions in a fairyland of coloured drapes. The harbour of Alexandria is a constant presence in the background, brought to life by a masterstroke of Baroque staging: the old trick of three horizontal rollers, painted blue and carved with ripples, which are turned to suggest the rising and falling of the waves. Throughout the production the harbour plays host to a brief history of modern shipping, from the flagships on which Cesare’s army arrives, to the zeppelins and battleships of Act III and the ocean liner sedately crossing the stage in the finale.

Handel: Giulio Cesare

We’ll always have Alexandria: Cesare (Sarah Connolly) is lured into Cleopatra’s (Danielle de Niese’s) web

It’s precisely this playful quality which makes the show so much fun to watch. But the set can be sober as well. Indeed, this production perfectly handles that difficult switch from comedy to tragedy which has stymied some other operas: Sesto’s fury is played out on an empty stage in front of a colossal fragmentary head of Pompey, looming above the harbour. It’s immensely effective. Costumes fall anywhere between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, although the primary feel is rather Edwardian-colonial: Cornelia turns up in bustle and lace with a rather splendid hat, and Sesto skulks around in a Norfolk jacket; the Roman soldiers wear red uniforms and pith helmets (Curio – Alexander Ashworth – wears a kilt). In short, David McVicar’s design is a glorious feast for the eyes.

I didn’t feel there was a weak link in the cast – and I’m judging them on their performances rather than their singing (although that was very good), because in something like this you can sing as well as you like but it needs a certain something extra to make it an engaging show. And boy, do they pull out all the stops. Patricia Bardon’s Cornelia is the picture of matronly dignity, with a superb self-possession, while Angelika Kirchschlager makes a smouldering Sesto, visibly maturing from schoolboy to fiery freedom fighter in the course of the production, and managing to convey earnest, knock-kneed gaucheness in every fibre.

Handel: Giulio Cesare

Cornelia (Patricia Bardon) and Sesto (Angelika Kirschlager)

Rachid Ben Abdeslam plays Nireno for laughs, cranking up the campness, but turns in an impressive vocal display: his performance of his aria Chi perde un momento was an absolute joy. His fellow sidekick Achilla is played with athletic grace by Christopher Maltman: I’d heard him sing before but never seen him and I certainly hadn’t expected him to be quite so… rugged. He exudes quiet, intelligent menace: more dangerous by far than his frivolous master Tolomeo and always looking out for the benefit to himself.

As for Tolomeo… well, I have a friend who is a big champion of Christophe Dumaux, so I was keen to see him in action, and he delivered a wonderful turn, full of bitchy, petulant tyranny. Here is a puppet king convinced of his own significance – and Dumaux was partially responsible for my favourite aria of the entire piece: the superbly-staged Va tacito e nascosto. Here Cesare faces up to Tolomeo, subtly sparring with him, testing his weaknesses, and it’s a beautiful concept, as the two leaders pace back and forth, literally entering into the dance of diplomacy. With each repetition, Tolomeo is backed up by more of his supporters and staff, reinforcing his position, while Cesare – proud, powerful and self-confident – serenely weaves his way through the massed forces of Egyptian bureaucracy like a knife through butter. I love its poise, the delicate negotiation of the choreography and the way that, even as Tolomeo tries to prove his strength, he effectively reveals the fundamental weakness of his rule. It’s simply brilliant – and fast-tracked an aria I’d never heard before into my current top ten.

Handel: Giulio Cesare

Cleopatra (Danielle de Niese) works her magic

And the two principals were best of all. There’s no doubt that if you want someone to play a Classical-era seductress, Danielle de Niese is the one to call. Her performance as Cleopatra is full-blooded and energetic: she throws herself into the role with such evident relish that I was completely won over. I’ve seen discussions about whether or not she has the ‘right’ voice for Handel, although I’ve yet to understand how one judges that, but going to the theatre is all about spectacle and verve and she’s better at that than any other singer I’ve seen to date. Moreover, being unfamiliar with the opera, I really appreciated her talent for storytelling. She’s at her best in the gloriously exuberant dance routines and comic moments, but she also really impressed me in her heart-rending Se pietà di me non senti. Such a performance could easily overpower the stage, but fortunately de Niese is up against a Cesare more than capable of matching her panache. Yes, my friends. Sarah Connolly strikes again.

It isn’t just that Connolly makes a scarily convincing man: that’s even more true here than as Nerone, with her slicked-back hair and her ability to convey masculinity without actually swaggering. She has an innate gift for comedy which obviously didn’t come through quite so much in Poppea (which doesn’t exactly get them rolling in the aisles, does it?). I’ve already talked about Va tacito, and part of that aria’s charm is the way that Connolly breaks the fourth wall with her ironic glances out at the audience. Her Cesare is effortlessly in control: like a lion with a mouse, he’s merely toying with this little prince and he wants us to know it.

Handel: Giulio Cesare

Cesare (Sarah Connolly) and Cleopatra (Danielle de Niese)

Another of her finest moments is in Al lampo dell’ armi, to which Dehggial had kindly sent me a link beforehand, and which shows off the production’s tongue-in-cheek attitude to the full, as well as giving ample proof of the chemistry between the two principals. It’s one of the two most convincing operatic romances I’ve seen so far (the other being the Sabadus-Baráth pairing in Elena). Indeed, there are moments when Connolly seems to be having way too much fun… Quite simply, I’ve now decided that she can do no wrong. I will watch her in anything and, if you need proof of that, I’ve actually volunteered to sit through five hours of Wagner in December just because she’s in it (Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera, if you’re interested). The things I do for art…

When sending me the link to Al lampo dell’ armi Dehggial warned me that I wouldn’t ever be able to accept anyone else in the role of Cesare. That may well be the case – though I’m still keen to see other interpretations – but the whole production is so delightful, so energetic and so irreverent, without, somehow, losing the spirit of the original, that I’m not sure whether any other Giulio Cesare could top it for sheer joie de vivre. It’s a real treat to learn about opera by starting off with the crème de la crème, but it does mean I’m being hopelessly spoiled for everything I’m going to see in the future.

On which note, I open the floor: which other DVDs offer a ‘best of the best’ approach? If I’m going to be spoiled, I might as well do it properly.

Buy the DVD

Handel: Giulio Cesare
Cesare (Sarah Connolly) and Cleopatra (Danielle de Niese) in the final chorus

18 thoughts on “Giulio Cesare (1724): George Frideric Handel

  1. dehggial says:

    Not sure if my last comment posted, so I'll just go ahead and try to answer your last question. If you were to get to know La clemenza di Tito make sure you start with this DVD. For Die Zauberflote go with this one and you've got year 1791 covered for Mozart. It's madness trying to recommend any of the Da Ponte Mozart operas, as there are so many productions on the market, so I won't, but this kabuki Mitridate is a lot of fun. Though not perfect, this is so far the best Idomeneo out there.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh dear no… I can't find it anywhere :-S Blogspot seems to be making a habit of this.

    However, thank you for the links! I will be sure to find the Tito and Zauberflote and start with those. I really, really wish there was a video recording of the Tito from Nancy earlier this year with Fagioli as Sesto and Mynenko as Annio. We were mourning that fact on Twitter.

    Funnily enough I actually started watching that Mitridate last night. So far I'm having *slight* difficulty getting into it as it feels very static compared to what I'm used to. And *very* stagey, which is of course the point, with all those very affected Baroque gestures… I also find that Ann Murray really does look like a woman (spoiled by Connolly, clearly), which means I'm having trouble buying into her Sifare; while Kowalski distracts me for another reason, because he looks strikingly like Tom Hiddleston's Loki's disaffected elder brother. (Really – get pictures of them both up side by side. It's remarkable.)

    The music itself is great of course (and he was only *fourteen*!!!) and the singing, so far, seems to be extremely accomplished with some astonishing notes from the sopranos. But I guess that, while I'm all for authentic sets and costumes – though were skirts ever actually five feet wide on stage even at the craziest time? – authentic performance styles are going to take me a while to settle into.

  3. dehggial says:

    I think the problem with Mozart's opera seria is it's bloody hard to sing, so it's not easy to get enough accomplished singers together. It's also not what he's known for so production teams might not want to invest too much into them. I always took that Mitridate production as simply silly and extravagant (I'm sure there was no kabuki at Mitridate's court). I like pretty colours and I love Bruce Ford in Mozart, so I was sold on that alone. Generally speaking I wouldn't worry too much about authenticity in opera 😉 despite what purists of all kinds would say. Like in the case of “a proper Baroque voice”. IMO, the more singers include Baroque roles in their repertoire, the more Baroque operas will be staged. So to hell with proper this or that, as long as they can actually sing the music.

    I guess time will tell, but since FF already sang Sesto once there might be another time. There still needs to be a good Vitellia (very hard to find, trust me) and Tito (not that easy either) before you can call it a good production, though 😉 For instance The Paris DVD (known as the Potato Tito among fans – because there is indeed a random potato in it) of Clemenza has a great Sesto with a lame Tito and people are split on Vitellia. I think she's great as far as acting goes but not singing-wise. Also that production isn't as striking as the Salzburg one.

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh, I do hope he does it again! I think it's very unsporting of him and Mynenko to have done this mere months before I got interested in the period. Couldn't they have held off *six* months?! 😉 Seriously, though, I do need to watch some treatments of this. I've got Gluck's version on CD and I've listened to that a few times, primarily because I will listen to anything Barna-Sabadus sings in (and actually there's quite a lot of lovely music in it), but I really don't know Mozart's version, so it's helpful to know where to start.

    No, I grant you, kabuki wasn't all that common in 1st-century BC Asia Minor (!), but the mind-boggling outfits are faithful in spirit to some of the more outré Baroque costumes. Compare those crazy panniered skirts to this portrait of Carlo Scalzi, for example: I'm seriously torn by it – the historian part of me wants to applaud them for having the guts to try it, whereas my inner child just gets distracted by wondering if they're going to get stuck as they try to exit the stage. Still, I will gird my loins and plough on with it. Bruce Ford hasn't turned up yet so I'm sure it will spring into life when he arrives. 😀

    The Potato Tito… One day, when I've watched a couple of really good examples, I shall have to find that one for a laugh. Thanks for the tip. 😉

  5. dehggial says:

    >>> my inner child just gets distracted by wondering if they're going to get stuck as they try to exit the stage <<<

    they probably thought the same thing! Haha. Hey, there's a production where they had poor Susan Graham sing Scherza, infida whilst slowly sliding (head first – she was lying on her back). It makes perfect sense dramatically but – dude! They also explored this very thing in that Il mondo della luna I saw the other night, when the soprano knocked everything in her way with her bustle and then got stuck in the rose bush.

    Mozart's Clemenza is not Baroque, it's “modernised opera seria”, that is the difference. It's also much shorter, the focus is very squarely on the three mains. Otherwise, if you're familiar with Gluck's you will recognise several numbers – except Mozart's versions are way better 😉

  6. dehggial says:

    Me again: in the post that didn't quite happen I was listing some of the Baroque shows I'm either going of thinking of going. I saw there will be a Judas Maccabaeus at Cadogan Hall on 6 November. There is a Hercules at Barbican (with Alice Coote in a girl role) on 5 March, as well as Semele and Giove in Arco also in March from the Handel Festival, which, as a pasticcio, might be a fun game of spot the aria.

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    Ah yes, I'm super-keen to see Hercules. That should be really good fun. My friends and I have had a bit of a splurge on tickets recently, so in order of imminence I've got Puccini at the ENO tonight; Idomeneo on 10 Nov; Iestyn Davies singing Bach at Christchurch Spitalfields on 11 Dec; Cencic at the Wigmore on 12 Dec; Sarah Connolly in Tristan and Isolde at the ROH on 14 Dec (I can't believe I'm *actually* going to some Wagner); Farinelli and the King (play, not concert, but it's Baroque) at the Globe, twice, on 11 and 14 Feb (once for each performer); Ormindo (hurrah!!!) at the Globe on 25 February; Connolly again in The Food of Love at the Wigmore on 10 March at the Wigmore; and The Indian Queen at ENO but can't find the date just at the moment. And no doubt there'll be other random things that pop up and have to be seen as well. I haven't even dared to look at the Handel Festival yet.

    Oh, and that doesn't include the Globe's entire winter season of Jacobean tragedies. My diary is now looking VERY full. I can't afford to buy groceries, but I've got some fabulous stuff lined up. 😉

  8. dehggial says:

    Good luck with Wagner! I can't sit through that much billowing stuff. The longest I could sit through in one go was the first 15min of Die Valkyrie. Nina Stemme is also a very good singer, though (I know her from Strauss, who I find a lot more bearable than Wagner). I should check that Bach Davies's in.

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