(directed by David McVicar, Glyndebourne, 20 July 2018)
It’s always nerve-racking when you go to see something you love live for the first time. What if it doesn’t live up to expectations? What if one of the cast has a sore throat? What if, horror of horrors, the manager comes onstage to announce a substitution? But at the same time, how can you resist? My opera buddy H and I had decided that we would pay virtually anything to see the revival of David McVicar’s marvellous Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne, and our resolution was put to the test when the more affordable seats were snapped up within seconds after going on sale. However, our budget-stretching seats in row B were absolutely worth the cost. Many of the cast from the 2005 production returned, with Sarah Connolly triumphant in the title role, and we could admire every little detail. Coupled with a lavish picnic and a gang of equally excited friends (inevitably christened Team Giulio), it made for a perfect day out, and I can promise you that it did live up to all those months of anticipation.
Now, I have written about this version of Giulio Cesare at great length before, so I won’t risk repeating myself; but there are enough changes to warrant a brief discussion of the show, and plenty of lovely pictures that I can share with you. For the plot, go take a look at my discussion of the DVD or the ETO production that we saw last year. In summary, it follows the struggle between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy for control of Egypt, exacerbated by the arrival of the Romans under the command of their great general Caesar, and spiced by the development of a certain tendresse between Caesar and the Egyptian queen. Of course, there’s always the question of how sincere this is. Both Caesar and Cleopatra are brilliant operators, and their grand passion can be played in various ways: a director of this opera always has to ask himself whether he wants his two protagonists to be genuine lovers or sophisticated politicians. (Can they, I wonder, be both?)
I did wonder whether the cast veterans had enchanted portraits hidden away in their attics, because none of them looked a day older or performed with an ounce less energy than they did in 2005. That applied particularly to Christophe Dumaux, who not only kept his gymnastic leaps and hand-springs, but seemed to make them even more elaborate and demanding. His Tolomeo is a glorious villain: a pusillanimous, cowardly braggart; and when the joyous crowd booed him like a pantomime baddie, as he came to take his bow, Dumaux made the sign of the horns like a rock god and lapped up the affection rolling in from the terraces. This is his signature role and he knows it back to front, not only musically but also dramatically. I always love to see actors and singers enjoying themselves, and there was no doubt he was having a whale of a time.
Patricia Bardon still made an exquisitely dignified Cornelia, her gorgeously creamy voice lending a poignant charge to her character’s tragedy. I confess that I do sometimes find the scenes with Cornelia and Sesto a trifle slow, especially in this production where I’m itching to get back to the glittery fun stuff, but Son nata a lagrimar is one of my favourite operatic duets. Bardon did, however, have a new companion: in this production, the role of Pompey’s vengeful son was taken by Anna Stéphany, who evidently seems to have a thing for playing tormented Romans called Sesto and, indeed, seemed to be wearing exactly the same wig as she donned for last year’s Clemenza di Tito. I thought she was marvellous then and she was equally good here, albeit in a more minor role, conveying Sesto’s growth throughout the production from shy schoolboy to resolute young man.
One cast change which didn’t really register with me in advance, but which came to be one of my favourites, was that of Achilla. I’m very fond of Christopher Maltman in the DVD, but I was swiftly charmed by John Moore’s scornful henchman, partly because of his powerful voice and brooding swagger, but also because he looked rather like Pasha Selim’s more violent brother. Another new cast member was Kangmin Justin Kim, who took on the role of Nireno and, incredibly, made it even camper and more fun than Rachid Ben Abdeslam did in the DVD. It was the first time I’d heard him, and his voice was impressive, if somewhat on the ‘white’ side for my taste; but, given his exuberance, H worries that he has now condemned himself to a lifetime of camp comedy and will end up playing nurse roles in Monteverdi and Cavalli. This needn’t be a bad thing, however: the man’s a talented comedian and he seems to be having a great time.
But of course the key new singer on the cast was Joélle Harvey, stepping into the glitzy shoes of Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra. There must be a special kind of anxiety when singing at a country-house opera, in a role which catapulted the lady of the house to fame, but Harvey didn’t show an ounce of nerves. I’ve seen her before, several times: as Servilia in last year’s Clemenza and in Ormindo (which introduced me to so many brilliant young singers), and she has always impressed me. Here she managed a feat that I’d thought impossible: she actually eclipsed de Niese for me. Harvey’s Cleopatra is no sex-kitten like her predecessor: she comes across as convincingly young and girlish, figuring out the game of politics in which she finds herself, and genuinely taken with the self-possessed older general who strides into her fragile world. She seems less calculating than de Niese’s Cleopatra: in the final scene, when Caesar presents her with the truce by which she is given the throne in return for subjugating her country to Rome, Harvey’s Cleopatra signs it without even looking for small print – to the distress of Nireno who, suspecting foul play, tries unsuccessfully to get a look at the treaty as it’s borne away.
And so what of Sarah Connolly, who was the reason we had been so desperate to come? Of course, she was wonderful. She fitted back into the role of the grizzled commander with great aplomb, and she and Harvey had, crucially, great chemistry. The subtle change in Cleopatra’s character made Caesar stronger here, less susceptible, more in control of the situation – though still easily distracted by a pretty face. The scene in which Caesar first meets ‘Lydia’ (Cleopatra in disguise) was beautifully done: Caesar unleashes all his charm on the pretty young thing, while his uniformed soldiers chuckle indulgently in the background. You can bet your bottom dollar they’re mumbling things like, “There he goes again,” or “The old man’s still got it.” Connolly plays the whole thing with a shrewd twinkle in her eye, never breaking character but allowing us to see how much fun she’s having. And that is exactly why I find her such a delightful performer. I should note that those members of Team Giulio up in the circle said they found it a bit hard to hear Connolly on occasion: they thought she was being drowned out by the orchestra. Dehggial, who was one of the party, had seen earlier shows in the run as well, and said that actually she thought Connolly was getting stronger. So there may well have been some problem with the sound balance, but of course H and I didn’t hear it because the singers were practically in our laps, and thank God for that.
It was, quite simply, magical. It’s a shame that a second DVD probably won’t be released, because it would be so interesting to measure this cast against the other, and to see how thirteen years have resulted in subtle changes in performance and characterisation. But I am so enormously glad I went and I’m even glad that I paid so much for that seat, because it’s given me an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. By the end, I was so happy that I was positively glowing and, like a child who’s had far too much excitement for one day, I even fell asleep on the train home. Simply splendid.