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Handel, Giulio Cesare in Egitto: Soloists, Orquesta Al Ayre Español, Conductor: Eduardo López Banzo, Palacio Euskalduna de Bilbao 17.1.2009 (JMI)

Production from Opera Lorraine and Opera Caen

Director: Yanis Kokkos (original) Marielle Kahn (revival)
Sets and Costumes: Yanis Kokkos
Lighting: Patrice Trottier


Giulio Cesare: Lawrence Zazzo
Cleopatra: Patrizia Ciofi
Cornelio: Kristina Hammarström
Sesto: Maria Riccarda Wesseling
Ptolomeo: Christophe Dumaux
Achillas: Gezim Myshketa
Curio: Alberto Arrabal
Nireno: Marifé Nogales

ABAO’s  opera season continues with a baroque title, which is unusual for this house. This is only the second time in its long history that the Bilbao Opera Association has approached baroque opera and the success of Händel’s  Alcina six years ago is doubtless the reason behind this. I remember that on the previous occasion there  were many doubts about how baroque opera would work at the Euskalduna, since its size it is not particularly suited for this kind of music. On this occasion though things have been programmed with much care, although I still  left the theatre with the clear feeling that the Euskalduna is not a good place for baroque opera.  Why was Alcina a big success and Giulio Cesare not? The difference was not on musical grounds, but rather in vocal terms and because of  a production less attractive than David McVicar’s Alcina.

The Euskalduna is a theatre, or rather auditorium, which is very large (almost 2,200 seats) and extremely wide. In this house it happens voices which are not perfectly projected become very problematic. On previous occasions I have heard all the singers in this performance of Giulio Cesare in other theatres and I have never had the difficulty hearing them that I experienced on this occasion. This was particularly remarkable for both countertenors, this being the first time that this kind of voice has been heard at the Euskalduna (Alcina did not use anybody in this fach). The special characteristics of these voices are penalized by this theatre, which is a pity and  I also wondered whether the orchestra pit was a little too high, which would not have helped. If ABAO wishes to cintinue looking for  excellence, which I do not doubt, I believe that presenting baroque operas  at the  Euskalduna is  an experience not to be repeated. The beautiful Teatro Arriaga is by far more suited to this kind of opera, although it present many other problems, particularly those of budgeting.

Giulio Cesare is without any doubt the most Handel's most performed opera, with beautiful music and great arias for the singers. Nevertheless,   it is an opera  that brings with it many problems for  the stage director if he is to provide a lively production. Achieving this has been one of the main reasons  for the success of baroque  opera  in the last few years and works by Robert Carsen, David McVicar and David Alden,  to name but a few, have been truly spectacular. I had the opportunity to see the work of Robert Carsen's   Zürich Semele a few days ago and Yanis Kokkos’ production is unfortunately not at the same level. It  falls short somehow in brightness and imagination.

Kokkos  transfers the action to modern times, which is quite normal these days, set on a stage with sliding  panels which give importance to several sets of mobile stairs. The changes of scene are quite easy and agile, but  where the production fails is in the direction of the singers and the use of  extras and dancers, which was generally rather poor.  With very few exceptions, the arias are sung in a static fashion creating a certain sensation of monotony. Overall the imagination shown  in the production is less than excessive.  The costumes, also by Kokkos, are more servicaable than bright and the lighting is below par too. In Bilbao the direction was not in the hands of Mr. Kokkos himself, but was by  his assistant Marielle Kahn and this may have affected the outcome. The choreography (very important in this type of opera) by Richild Springer also left something to be desired. In summary, this production was  more effective than inspiring, and a very long way indeed  from McVicar’s achievements with Alcina.

Wthout a doubt, the best part of the performance  was  the presence of  Eduardo Lopez Banzo and his  Orchestra Al Ayre Español. Lopez Banzo is one of the best baroque conductors in Spain just now, as he has shown so many times in the past. On this occasion he delivered again a very thoughtful reading full of lyricism and not without strength when needed. His performance standards progressed upwards, improving clearly in Acts II and III. Even so, I found him very accurate in Act I, but slightly lacking in the spark needed to move the audience. The orchestra was magnificent: one of the best in this repertoire at the present time, with truly beautiful sound and great musicality. As I said, the best part of the evening.

The cast, with some exception, could have been a great success in any other theatre. Here, nevertheless, things were not quite as expected. The American Lawrence Zazzo is one of the best countertenors of today and one of best interpreters of the title role of this opera. His voice is much more pleasant than is usual among his colleagues, and he is a good actor as well as a sensitive singer, very easy in coloratura. However, the voice  had insufficient volume on more than one occasion. I saw him in this role a year ago in Valladolid and the result was much better, although he himself has not changed.

Patrizia Ciofi was the best of the cast as Cleopatra. I have always emphasized her artistic capacity and her ability to communicate with the audience. Her voice is certainly rather small but it is  perfectly projected and it reaches the audience without any problems. She is an outstanding singer who knows how to move on stage. She had some bright moments, particularly with the most moving rendering of “Piangeró la sorte mia” and  she was the only singer to receive an ovation at the final curtain.

Kristina Hammarström from Sweden offered a beautiful voice and good singing as Cornelia. Her projection is not perfect though and so she experienced the same problems as the countertenors. In my opinion, she is slightly  lacking at the bottom of the tessitura.  The Swiss,  Maria Riccarda Wesseling made a good Sesto. She had no problems with  the auditorium and  was a very good actress.

The French countertenor Christophe Dumaux has one of the most beautiful voices in his fach. His Tolomeo, brother and husband of Cleopatra in real life (although the libretto presents him only as Cleopatra’s brother) was  good, but he too  had serious problems with engaging the audience. The difference between how his voice worked in Valladolid and Bilbao was very remarkable.  

The secondary roles were well cast. The Albanian - it seems that  Albania is becoming a big producer of singers now - Gezim Myshketa made a good Achillas, sonorous, although it to my mind  baroque opera  may not be  his best field. Both Alberto Arrabal (Curio) and  Marifé Nogales (Nireno)  also impressed.

Unusually, the theatre had some empty seats: although  tickets were surely sold out and there were some deserters after the first intermission. At  the final bows the biggest ovations were for Lopez Banzo and Al Ayre Español and as I mentioned, among the  singers the best reception went to Patrizia Ciofi. For the rest of the cast, enthusiasm was not excessive.

José M Irurzun

Picture © E. Moreno Esquivel

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