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Handel, Giulio Cesare: Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 14th July 2005 (H-T W)


After Theodora in 1996 and Rodelinda in 1998, both with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under William Christie, followed this year the first ever Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare, also with the OAE and again conducted by the American baroque specialist William Christie. The OAE is firmly established here and as Glyndebourne’s current general director David Pickard had before been the general director of the OAE this will certainly not change. It could well be that in the future Handel could take over as house composer from Mozart, but I am somehow opposed to this new rule that Handel has to be interpreted entirely on period instruments.


I do not question William Christie’s authority, but I have my doubts about the current trend of musically historical correctness, which is quite often extremely subjective. The sound of period instruments is thin and the old brass instruments are difficult to play. To sustain the interest in many of those Handel arias with their endless repetitions is, therefore, neither easy nor always successful. On the other hand, the voices of today are trained to cope with a repertoire, which covers centuries, while the baroque opera asks for light and slightly sweet sounding voices and for very versatile counter tenors. Further, one needs a contemporary production style, which helps the music to breathe and captivates the audience.


Glyndebourne tried hard, but did not always succeed. The casting was uneven, the production (David MacVicar) walked on a tightrope, the OAE sounded not always at its best and even William Christie seemed far too involved in his delicate reading of Handel and was not particularly interested in helping to bridge a certain emptiness in some scenes.


The stage design by Robert Jones was simple and effective. The stage had been transformed into a huge and slightly raked hall, flanked by five columns on each side, which gave endless opportunities for flown sets from the grid. Colourful curtains transformed Cleopatra’s world in to ‘Arabian Nights´, while at the beginning, as well as in many other scenes, the river Nile appeared in the background. During the short overture Cesare’s galleys sailed across the river; in the third act after the triumphant fight of Cesare’s and Cleopatra’s troops against their enemies, a whole fleet of world war one cruisers and zeppelins appeared and in the final scene, when Cesare crowns Cleopatra as sole Queen of Egypt, HMS Mary I seemed to dock, to carry Cesare and his soldiers back to Rome.


The costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) mirrored the years before the First World War. Cesare’s soldiers entered the stage wearing the uniforms of the British North Africa Corps, lead by a Scottish officer. Busy photographers captured every detail of this victory ceremony, which went sadly wrong when Achilla (Christopher Maltman), a general of King Tolemeo, offers Cesare the head of Pompey as a gift. The story line is far too banal to be taken seriously and one could easily have done without the surtitels. I only wondered why Giulio Cesare was cast with the soprano Sarah Connolly and not with a counter tenor. At the premiere at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket in 1724, this part was sung by the alto castrato Francesco Bernardi, known as Seresino. Sarah Connolly did her best to give this important character credibility but it still did not sound quite right.


David McVicar’s production tried to transform the story into a mixture of cabaret show and farce – always extremely successful when he dealt with the femme fatale Cleopatra and her rival Tolomeo, but not as successful in the more intimate arias and duets of Cornelia (the Irish Mezzo Patricia Bardon) and her son Sesto (the superb Austrian soprano Angelika Kirschschlager). The Moroccan counter-tenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam made the best out of Nireno, the confidante of Cleopatra, and the French counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux created an over hysterical Tolomeo. But the highlight of the entire evening had been the British debut of the only 25 years old Australian born American soprano Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra. I cannot remember any debut of such phenomenal musicality, temperament, humour, directness and acting ability. She stole the show and judging from the applause there was certainly nobody in the auditorium who would not have gone for her wit and sex appeal. Her already beautiful voice may still grow, but her stage presence, her instinct, her flair were just out of this world and I am longing to hear her again soon, if necessary even in a Handel opera.


The whole evening had its ups and downs, and I could have done without the silly movement created by Andrew George. Handel is generally difficult to stage. He wrote his operas for particular famous voices of his time and he wanted to entertain an audience, who loved those voices. The only entirely satisfying contemporary Handel production I have ever seen had been Nicholas Hytner’s Xerxes at the English National Opera quite some years ago.


Hans-Theodor Wohlfarht


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