Handel: Giulio Cesare
Glyndebourne Festival Opera
28th July 2005
For all its glitzy surface appeal, David McVicar's new production has a sinister underbelly which becomes more obvious as the evening progresses. At the opening of the final scene the hotel waiters are sweeping the stage, laying out the drinks and preparing for their masters to celebrate in exactly the same way as they had almost six hours before when Cesare arrived. Modern parallels are not pushed here but they are all the more obvious. Caesar invades Egypt to ensure grain supplies for the ravenous Roman population. He replaces a psychotic despot, Tolomeo, with a sexy air-head, Cleopatra. The Empire has control but for the people of Egypt nothing has changed. In the final moments the servants raise their hands in prayer for revenge in the same way as Cornelia and Sesto had done in the opening scenes after Pompey's murder. It is a chilling moment and rightly lets a cloud hang over the jubilation of the invaders. Earlier the 'dead' Roman soldiers come back to life and the butchered leaders join their erstwhile colleagues - no matter how many Imperialists you kill, it seems to be saying, they will always have the upper hand.
If this view seems to be entirely contradictory to the general opinion that this is a rather light-weight production, with more than enough Bollywood dancing and humour to keep the most jaded opera-goer awake, then so be it. However, I have to admit that the musical side is so ravishingly well done and consistently exciting that it would be easy to just sit back and let the score roll over you. Yet this would be s disservice to Handel's score and characterisation. The emotional heart of the work is Patricia Bardon's Cornelia, powerfully aristocratic throughout and singing with a nobility of tone and purity of line that is utterly convincing. Her sudden about face in the final scene, appearing in white for the celebrations apparently now quite relaxed about the loss of her husband is all the more alarming when we see her next to her son, Sesto, who has been traumatised by the events. Angelika Kirchschlager is vocally fine and her slight figure makes a convincing young man. Christophe Dumaux's Tolomeo is so viciously nasty it was difficult to understand how anybody could find his actions funny. Violence may be a reality but it is never acceptable and turning it into humour is a dangerous undertaking.
Sarah Connolly's Cesare is totally self-absorbed, the voice focussed on the fireworks while the character ignores everything but his own enjoyment and getting his own way. As such he is a perfect foil for Danielle de Niese's Cleopatra. Reminiscent of Maria Ewing's slinky sexuality, she uses all the tricks in her book of seduction to ensnare Cesare and then keep him, little realising that he is doing exactly the same. Her central scenes show us that Cleopatra has a potential for self-doubt and empathy but as soon as she is free again she returns to the all-singing, all-dancing banalities of her earlier scenes. That she has the vocal ability to throw off the arias with total security and musical line is a tribute to her but I would have preferred a more deeply felt approach throughout.
Settings by Robert Jones drew on eighteenth century techniques with the rolling seascape and the formal arches, all of which worked very well. The introduction of 19th century WPDs in the final scene was both witty and apt. The main reason for my attending the performance on 28 July was that Laurence Cummings had taken over in the pit from William Christie. He was clearly loving every moment of it and he gave us some inspired continuo work as he led from the harpsichord. Solo work from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was always excellent, with the solo flute and theorbo particularly impressive. The production will surely return to Glyndebourne, where it will be interesting to see how it copes with any changes of cast.
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