(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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.