George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724)
Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor) - Giulio Cesare; Natalie Dessay (soprano) - Cleopatra; Isabel Leonard (mezzo) - Sesto; Varduhi Abrahamyan (contralto) - Cornelia; Christophe Dumaux (counter-tenor) - Tolomeo; Nathan Berg (bass) - Achilla; Dominique Visse (tenor) - Nireno, Aimery Lefèvre (baritone) - Curio
Paris National Opera Chorus, Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haim
rec. Palais Garnier, Paris, 1, 4 and 7 February 2011
VIRGIN CLASSICS 0709399 [2 DVDs: 85.00 + 131.00]
Giulio Cesare remains the most popular of all Handel’s operas, and the reason is not altogether far to seek. Most of his operas revolve around matrimonial tangles involving either mythological or legendary figures, or historical figures whose true history is so twisted and altered that they might as well be mythological. In Julius Caesar however he stuck relatively close to the historical facts regarding Caesar’s entanglement with Cleopatra in Egypt. The fact that he was working with real characters seems to have inspired him to a greater degree of emotional involvement. It is noteworthy that the programme note by the librettist Nicola Francesco Haym prepared for the first performances emphasised the historical background of the opera, to the extent indeed of almost ignoring the actual plot of the opera itself.
In his original performances, too, Handel was working with the leading singers of his day, and he wrote music for them which not only presented formidable technical demands but required dramatic and emotional sympathy too. Here we are lucky to have some leading singers of the current day - and not only in the field of baroque music - who give a considerable degree of lyrical and dramatic involvement in the roles of the very real characters they are playing. Natalie Dessay brings real star quality to the part of Cleopatra, and Isabel Leonard is similarly inspired as Sextus; both project plenty of fire into their faster arias, and both are suitably plangent in their slower ones. Varduhi Abrahamava has less opportunity for display (especially since her final aria of triumph is taken at a rather sedate Allegro) but she brings passion and depth to her laments.
The role of Caesar himself has always presented a problem, since Handel originally wrote it for the castrato Senesino, and castrati are in remarkably short supply nowadays. In the early days of the Handel revival it was common practice to take the part down an octave for baritone or bass, but this quite rightly is no longer acceptable as the transposition plays havoc with Handel’s carefully contrived registers and orchestration. René Jacobs, himself a counter-tenor, has however pointed out that to employ counter-tenors in Handel’s castrato roles is equally inauthentic. Handel himself, if a castrato was not available, had no hesitation in employing women to take on the male roles; it is clear that he valued expression and power above a simple matter of gender. It is impossible for us now to do more than make an educated guess as to the actual sound that the castrati produced; the only gramophone recording, of an aging chorister in the Papal Choir, suggests a more heroically focused sound than modern counter-tenors produce, but there are no grounds for suspecting that this recording is typical of the sound that the castrati made on the operatic stage. Vazzo makes a valiant attempt to mimic the sound we hear on that old 1904 recording, but the result still lacks heroic power and there is an alarming disjunction between the sounds he emits at the top and the bottom of his range. Indeed one is almost reminded of Marilyn Horne or Huguette Tourangeau on those old Sutherland recordings. But the real problem is that the heroic tone he seeks to produce militates against the expression that Handel clearly regarded as so important (to the extent that he would rather employ a singer of the wrong sex than a counter-tenor), and the emotional intensity that we find in performances of the role by singers such as Janet Baker is totally missing. Given that the casting of this role will always inevitably involve some form of compromise, one would prefer the warmth and richness of an artist like David Daniels to an attempt to mimic the sound of an original castrato, an attempt which inevitably will fall short of the trumpet-like tones which we are informed Senesino and his ilk produced. Oddly enough in the second and third Acts Zazzo’s voice seems to settle down; his delivery becomes less strident and his registers are better integrated, although he never really achieves a sense of warmth. Perhaps these Acts were recorded on a different day?
The other singing on the male side of the cast is similarly flawed. The role of Nirenus is allocated to a tenor whose whining tone produces entirely the wrong sort of characterisation; indeed his arias are something of a trial; in later performances of the opera Handel rewrote the part for a woman. Nathan Berg singing Achillas, a role which demands a bass with a very wide range and flexibility, has good solid bottom notes but sounds strained and thin in his upper register. Christopher Dumaux as Ptolemy has a very similar kind of voice to Vazzo, which works as a characterisation of this thoroughly unpleasant spoiled child; but he has to work very hard indeed to deal with the insanely elaborate music than Handel has written for him.
The production too does not help. The costumes by the director Laurent Pellay are very definitely intended to be of the period of the late Roman republic - although Ptolemy, a Greek, would not have looked like the Pharaoh of a much earlier period of Egyptian history that we are shown here - but the setting is presented in a modern museum, with the characters presented like exhibits in a series of showcases and wheeled around by museum attendants dressed in costumes of the present day. These attendants also take peripheral parts in the action itself, for example openly ogling Cleopatra when she bares her left breast. In modern productions of Handel operas producers usually give their imaginations free rein, but given the historical nature of the plot of Giulio Cesare of which Haym was so proud this can often work against the music. The sort of presentation we are given here, although less deliberately anachronistic than some other modern designs - Sellars springs to mind - nevertheless serves only to distract from the emotional seriousness than Handel invested in the music. We are given instead a series of displays which are admirable in themselves, and are often very impressive in isolation, but they are not allowed to cohere into a dramatic whole.
In the vision of the Muses as the beginning of the second Act the scene shifts into the art gallery section of the museum, with the attendants wheeling on various paintings on oriental subjects from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - and at one point, in a horribly coy self-referential moment, a portrait of Handel himself. The attendants continue to inter-react with the singers - they become Ptolemy’s and Cleopatra’s armies at one point. At other times they seem to ignore them altogether, as when they continue polishing a display case which Cleopatra takes delight in smudging when they are not looking. These and other such moments are clearly intended to be comic, but the audience - who are all too ready to applaud an aria before the music has actually stopped - resolutely refuse to be moved to laughter. The problem remains that the opera is being treated as a display of individual exhibits treated in isolation rather than as a whole. Only at the end, when the museum is being closed down for the night as the final chorus is being sung - incidentally Handel wrote for this chorus to be sung by the eight soloists, not by a separate chorus as here - do we get a proper sense of closure.
Comparisons of this staging with the 1984 English National Opera presentation (currently available on DVD from Kultur), with Janet Baker as Caesar, work almost entirely in the latter’s favour. The production at the ENO may seem slightly staid now, and the unmistakable figure of Baker is very obviously a woman dressed in armour, but it does have the advantage of taking the emotions of the opera seriously and gains considerably in dramatic tension by so doing. For a modern re-interpretation which is free from Pellay’s dubiously comic glosses, try David McVicar’s serious updating from Glyndebourne, also with a female Caesar (available on DVD from Opus Arte). The only real problem with the ENO video is the fact that the music of the opera itself is drastically abridged, with over half an hour of music removed. This may have been necessary for staging - the score is one of Handel’s longest operas - as Mackerras claimed in a booklet note with the original CD reissue of the recording. We lose some lovely numbers such as Sesto’s slow aria towards the end of the first Act.
On the other hand this production too makes quite a number of cuts, and not only in recitatives. Caesar, for example, loses his final aria (which Baker and Mackerras give us); and both Mackerras and Haim cut the whole of the final scene from Act Two, choosing to end with Cleopatra’s lament. Otherwise Haim and her musicians do a good job by the score, and her period instruments have more character than Mackerras can attain with his generally modern forces. The booklet credits Benoit Hartoun as ‘claveciniste’ but from what we see Haim herself sits at the harpsichord to direct the orchestra; whoever is actually playing during the recitatives deserves to be complimented for the many sensitive touches they bring to their role.
Incidentally neither the DVD packaging nor the booklet give any indication of individual tracks, which means that anyone wishing to pick out an individual track will have to spool through the relevant disc.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Natalie Dessay brings real star quality to the part of Cleopatra.