Webmaster: Len Mullenger
Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROM 52: Handel, ‘Julius
Caesar’ Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Age
of Enlightenment, William Christie, Royal Albert Hall,
It was the first entertainment of this nature that I ever saw, and will I hope be the last, for of all the diversions of the town I least of all enter into this. So John Byrom wrote to his wife after seeing this opera in 1724, and although I naturally do not share his dislike of Handel opera in general, the particular style of production seen on the present occasion is most certainly one into which I do not enter, and of which I wish this could be the last example I might see – in vain, of course. It was hyped up to the rafters when originally reviewed at Glyndebourne (with the honourable exception of The Times’ Robert Thicknesse, whose brilliant phrase to describe the presentation of the arias, ‘…whorish applause-seeking’ I cannot hope to better) and of course most of the audience at the Proms lapped it up, but in reality it was remarkable only for some truly distinguished singing and superb orchestral direction, both of which frequently had to compete with insulting ‘routines’ and absurdly anachronistic costumes and attitudes.
The evening’s finest singing came from Angelika Kirchschlager’s Sesto, eloquent in phrasing, sombre in tenor, authentic in line and emission of tone and consistently audible even in the softest of phrases, the latter something which eluded the singer of the main part. ‘Svegliatevi nel core’ was a wonderful display of youthful fury, and the real high point of the whole performance was her ‘Cara speme’ (Dearest hope) with the voice pared down to the finest thread and the continuo almost painfully echoing its burden – this rightly got a huge ovation. Unfortunately she was ludicrously directed, in exactly the same style as Magdalena Kozena had to suffer in her Glyndebourne Idamante – all that tortuous, whirling – about, ‘gawky youth’ in the style of ‘Brighton Rock’ minor gangsters / circa 60s pop idols like Billy Fury is just so passé now, and the laugh when she entered swathed in bullet belts said it all. Glorious singing though, against all the odds. The same was true of Patricia Bardon’s Cornelia, whose noble dignity just managed to survive the shenanigans: this is a really great voice, recalling Sarah Walker at her finest, and the duet with Sesto which closes the first part of the opera was sublime. When McVicar simply has to allow characters to express their deepest feelings in tune with the conventions of opera seria he can do it as well as anyone, but he doesn’t let it happen very often – far too boring, I suppose.
Cleopatra could never be boring in any production, and here every stop was pulled out to ensure that even the least historically aware would realize that she is a Sex Kitten! So she is – but she is also a fascinating characterization, her world view wonderfully delineated in eight arias which individually express her longing, coquettishness, passion, fear and vanity, all of which went for nothing in the one-dimensional depiction seen here. It seems to have escaped the ears of most critics that the gorgeous, pouting Danielle de Niese is not really a Handel singer: she displays vibrato in the wrong places and her tone is far more suitable for, say, Barbarina or Nanetta: this is not Rosemary Joshua, still less Valerie Masterson – but hey, she’s delectably gorgeous and a dead ringer for Victoria Beckham, so we can get her to do a great ‘Posh Spice’ routine, so who cares? Well, actually, I do, and a brief analysis of Cleopatra’s ‘Non disperar’ will demonstrate why. This aria, a jaunty, mocking allegro, makes quite clear that she is poking fun at her brother’s inadequacy: her guying of him is expertly shown in the music itself, the derisory fioritura on words like ‘consolar’ needing nothing more to show its meaning, but of course this could not possibly do. So, we had the whole shebang – a truly nauseating dance routine complete with ‘Nancy boy’ gestures, bouncing along to the beat in a combination of Bollywood with Pan’s People: it was the Sun version of opera, and I found it truly insulting. The singing was ordinary; the ‘style’ was everything.
Cleopatra’s great aria forming the conclusion to the second part is one of Handel’s deepest evocations of feeling: the singer’s plea to the gods is conceived as a lament in F sharp minor, with the woodwind’s sighing suspensions giving the clearest shape to her grief and dread that the man she loves may come to harm – here, it was a cloying display of emotion in true tabloid style, with plenty of gesture but devoid of the true, still dignity which the piece invites. She looked absolutely fabulous, though, and even more so at the closing duet, clad in pale apricot silk whilst weaving beautifully around her lover’s vocal line in ‘Caro, Bella’ – finely done, by all involved.
Sarah Connolly is no more Janet Baker than Ms de Niese is the other ladies mentioned, and this was evident from the first moments: the voice is simply not large enough, nor does it have any quality of command, so that a line making an observation like ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ goes for nothing. However, this initial lack of vocal presence did not continue, and as always with this artist, the quiet, reflective singing and the most florid passagework were both as good as you can get nowadays. However, it almost goes without saying that in this production there was only a little chance to savour these without extraneous claptrap.
Caesar’s glorious ‘hunting horn’ aria, ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ (How silently, how slyly) was perhaps the worst example of a style of presentation which, to me, insults both composer and audience. This is a soliloquy, cast in the mould of a reflection by a Shakespearean protagonist like Macbeth, in which the hero ponders aloud upon deceitfulness and compares human duplicity to a hunter who observes his prey from afar; the music, in particular the wonderful horn obbligato, says it all, but here the implication was that the audience is too stupid to grasp the import of what is being said by a lone hero and a pair of horns – so, we had a full stage, complete with a stomping quasi-gavotte which might have been in place at a country – house dance in a Jane Austen novel. Connolly meanwhile, deprived of the right to sing her aria to the audience, divided her time between stomping and military gestures.
The Ptolemy of Christophe Dumaux was a big hit, mainly because he fulfilled what seemed to be the audience’s take on effeminacy – he was depicted as a joke, but rather a cute and athletic one: sadly his voice is quite weak, and his style of production of it is more Buddy Holly than James Bowman. The other counter-tenor, Rachid Ben Abdeslam, has a genuinely fine voice but he was conceived as a ninny, in a very unfortunate ‘ooh – I – am – a –dozy – cow’ style. Christopher Maltman, as Achillas, escaped most of the ‘conceptions’ and turned in his usual highly committed, ‘bit of rough’ performance.
Visually, it was an hilarious mish-mash: the director said that we should think Agatha Christie on the Nile, but I would prefer to say we should think bits of past Handel opera productions (oh, I like those eastern-y satin trousers from the ENO ‘Xerxes’ / let’s have a bit of tabloid updating from ENO’s ‘Semele’) fused with ‘Are You being Served?’ a rejected ‘Posh Spice’ movie and cutting-room-floor edits from the last but six Bollywood efforts. First we have the Raj in a kilt, and then suddenly enter Kylie Minogue fused with Victoria Beckham, then dark suits and cocktails – another bit from that ENO ‘Semele’ except that there, it actually made sense because the chorus were greeting the birth of Bacchus.
Some wonderful singing was matched with playing of rare distinction under William Christie, with the strings approaching perfection and the horns all that any Handelian could desire. Of course you could say I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to the production style – I just find such things unnecessary when the music makes the points, but one way of looking at it is that such productions may well bring this music to the attention of many people who would otherwise regard Handel as dull or unapproachable save for ‘Messiah,’ and that is something to which one cannot object.
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