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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Giulio Cesare - dramma per musica in tre atti HWV 17 (1724)
Flavio Oliver – Giulio Cesare, David Mendéndez – Curio, Ewa Podleś – Cornelia
Maite Beaumont – Sesto, Elena de la Merced – Cleopatra, Jordi Domènech – Tolomeo, Oliver Zwarg – Achilla, Itxaro Mentxaka – Nireno, Héctor Manzanares – Coccodrillo
Orquestra Simfònica I Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu/Michael Hofstetter
Herbert Wernicke (adaptation and stage direction)
rec. live, July 2004, Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona
Picture format: 16:9 anamorphic NTSC
Region: 0
TDK DVWW-OPGCES [2 DVDs: 84:00 + 132:00]



Giulio Cesare has always been one of Handel’s more popular operas. There are certainly enough convincing characters to keep the audience involved. Caesar is proud but not haughty, and is seen as a lover, philosopher and warrior. The two principal women are ripe personalities with a clear presence: Cornelia is the leading Roman mother figure, Cleopatra is vulnerable but resourceful. The villains of the piece however receive relatively superficial treatment, and more often than not, superficial dispatch into the next world. The libretto, crafted by Nicola Haym who was an occasional librettist for Handel and the Royal Academy, was based on an older libretto that had been prepared for another composer. The earlier piece was much longer textually than the typical requirements of Italian opera in the 1720s, so Haym had quite a bit of editing to do, but the editing helped focus the action on the three main characters, Caesar, Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy, giving them a variety of arias that helps characterise their emotions. Julius Caesar was a much more ambitious project than anything that Handel had attempted up to this point and so he took, for him, a considerable amount of time over the score. The result is a sumptuous work with the unusual addition of four horns, recorders, transverse flute, gamba, bassoon and theorbo, all added to the usual pit orchestra of strings and winds. Caesar was a great success with 13 performances after its premiere in February 1724, and a similar number of performances in two revivals, first in 1725 and again in 1730.
 
The opening is nicely characterised with someone in a crocodile suit, although the movements are not entirely anatomically correct, unless the poor beast has a broken back. The action takes place on an enlarged replica of the Rosetta stone, the symbolism of which is fairly clear and referred to in the booklet notes. Aside from making for a versatile platform for the action there isn’t really much connection with the actual story, other than providing a unifying factor for which it works very well. A reflective mirror image of the stone hangs over the players, serving as a dark, menacing cloud or heightening the effects on stage, which with coloured backdrop lighting has a nice sense of depth and focus.
 
To be honest, the costumes are a bit of a mixed bag. Caesar hangs on to the traditional laurel wreath, but appears in Napoleonic garb. Modern dress is the principal line for the Romans, although while the soldiers are quite WWII the higher ranks give a more antique, WWI impression. Nireno is in a straight business suit with a Charlie Chaplin bowler hat. Tolomeo also has a trendy suit underneath the royal robes, and his men have Arabian desert garb. The ladies appear in anything from what likes like a gown from Victorian times (Cornelia), through gorgeous blue things (Cleopatra), and bewigged Louis XVI costume (ladies in waiting, onstage orchestra). Achilla has a basic comedy safari outfit and sunglasses, but the sense of spectacle is certainly good value even if it’s not entirely clear who is who on looks alone. The last scene throws in an idea I saw last at the ENO production of Philip Glass’s ‘Akhnaten’, where a bunch of present-day tourists turn up to survey the place where it all happened – this time as the final chorus.    
 
The registration is a fairly straight registration with close-ups, and the ‘live’ feel of a night at the opera is well preserved with plenty of bumps and bangs and members of the cast tripping over the scenery. Act II begins with Caesar and Nireno taking places in the audience which plays havoc with the microphones and the balance for a moment, but this is all part of the fun, and in the end that’s what I liked most about this production – despite one or two extra pretensions, the whole thing is a very enjoyable romp and never really seems to take itself too seriously, despite having plenty of moments of genuine emotion and drama. There are some text boards held up for the audience at several moments, but we never get to see what’s written on them, and they don’t seem to be indicated in the subtitles, which are otherwise well timed and accurately translated. The orchestra sounds good, and there has been no attempt to sex-up the sound with reverb – the only mild criticism being slight favouritism toward the harpsichord continuo in the balance. The singing is excellent, even if it sometimes sounds as if Flavio Oliver might have appreciated a fraction less pace from the orchestra at some of the tricky coloratura moments. For me, the star of the show is Elena de Merced, whose ‘Se pieta di me non senti’ is truly gorgeous, as are all of her arias. Most of the crucial moments are indeed sensitively handled between all of the rough and tumble stage directions, although the dispatch of Tolomeo has a bizarre non sequitur quality to it – his decapitated singing head appearing rather too far away from the ‘body double’ even for suspension of disbelief. Jordi Domènech shows incredible vocal range and has a nice camp style for the Egyptian King though, gay and threatening at the same time – prior to his decease, that is. Oliver’s counter-tenor might take a little getting used to, but has plenty of expressive weight when needed, carrying the drama of the third act well, if sometimes wandering off-key just a little at times.
 
All in all a fine production then – colourful and highly entertaining, and with all of the drama, most of it intended, of a very grand night out.
 
Dominy Clements
 



 


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