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Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Giulio Cesare, HWV 17 (1724)
Cecilia Bartoli (Cleopatra), Andreas Scholl (Cesare), Philippe Jaroussky (Sesto), Anne Sofie von Otter (Cornelia), Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo), Ruben Drole (Achilla), Jochen Kowalski (Nirena), Peter Klmn (Curio)
Il Giardino Armonico / Giovanni Antonini
Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier (directors)
rec. Haus fr Mozart, Salzburg Whitsun Festival, May 2012
Menus – English: Picture Format – 16:9: Colour Mode: Region Code – 0 (worldwide): DVD Format – NTSC: Dolby Digital Stereo: DTS Digital 5.1 Surround: Subtitles – English, French, German: Duration – 249 minutes.
Sung in Italian; booklet, no libretto
DECCA DVD 074 3856 [249:00]

I am not sure if this is what sneering Americans like to call Eurotrash opera but it is certainly not genteel. The stage directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier set Handel’s Giulio Cesare amidst the burning tyres and oil rigs of some presumably Middle Eastern despotic landscape in which the usual scampering about takes place during the orchestral introduction; a lot of soldiers toting guns and a cowering populace recoiling in semi-darkness. There are camouflage and combat jackets a go-go, cornrow hair and tattoos, a sky-blue suit for Andreas Scholl, Philippe Jaroussky in long shorts, a limousine on stage, Cecilia Bartoli straddling a rocket, and a crocodile. If this makes you yearn for ENO, or for some more Arcadian setting, you may well not be alone. Nevertheless, the opera is bloody and some appreciation of its dark moments is warranted.

What emerges intact throughout the conceptual mess and muck of this bizarre production—it seems to have no true point of view other than incidental outrages—is the vocal strength of the top-of-the-range cast. Those few moments of real clarity and simplicity register all the more given that they are surrounded by a morass of ill-disciplined stage gestures. Andreas Scholl sings splendidly as Cesare but is asked to undertake too many stagey theatrics, some of which undermine the clarity of his performance. It is not his fault at all. Anne Sofie von Otter’s moving lament Priva son d’ogni conforto is that much more compelling because of her statuesque stillness amidst the theatrical carnage whilst, as Sesto, Jaroussky’s athleticism and laser-focused countertenor is another sizeable vocal asset: his Cara speme is excellent. Together their duet Son nata that ends Act I is one of the best elements of the whole production. Veteran countertenor Jochen Kowalski does one of his female turns, here as Nirena, but his voice is now frayed. Meanwhile Bartoli gives full rein to her Bartolisms in what is not one of the best-known arias, Tutto pu donna vezzosa but she brings to it immense zest and coloratura brilliance, with a dramatic array of fluidity and theatricality.

It is during V’adoro pupille that Bartoli erotically straddles the rocket, as per the booklet cover which shows her in a blonde wig, leather trousers and party top. Christophe Dumaux as the unpleasant Tolomeo engages in some pillow humping during Achilla’s aria Se a me non sei crudele—not a sight that will receive universal acclaim—nor will the subsequent scene where he masturbates to a porno mag. Clearly when it comes to characterisation in scenes like these, the directors prefer a bulldozer to a scalpel. It is best to remember instead, if one can, Bartoli’s brilliant Da tempeste il legno infranto with added vocalisms to annoy the purists. During the last scene Tolomeo comes back from the dead, the stage is dismantled and the singers gather around a piano, with champagne to drink. I am sure there is a point somewhere: all is allusion? Art is artifice? Do not take any of this too seriously? In which case, why subject your audience to a bruising encounter with a zero-concept operatic production?

Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini naturally escape censure; they play with personality and conviction. Recitatives are well paced in the context of a chaotic production.
This is the kind of opera on disc you watch either eyes wide open in appalled amazement or eyes tight shut. In both cases, much of the singing saves the day – especially Otter and Jaroussky, with Bartoli and Scholl close behind.

Jonathan Woolf



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