Georg Frederic Handel
Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, after Giacomo Francesco Bussani
Paris, Opéra Garnier
Conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm
Production by Laurent Pelly (director & costumes), Chantal Thomas (sets), Joël Adam (lighting), Agathe Mélinand (dramaturg & assistant director)
With: Lawrence Zazzo (Cesare), Varduhi Abrahamyan (Cornelia), Isabel Leonard (Sesto), Natalie Dessay (Cleopatra), Christophe Dumieux (Tolomeo), Nathan Berg (Achilla), Dominique Visse (Nireno), Aimery Lefevre (Curio)
Orchestre du Concert de l'Astree, Choeurs de l'Opéra de Paris
Giulio Cesare is one of the few Handel operas to have been widely performed before the Baroque revival of the last quarter of the 20th century. The juicy roles written for castrati proved irresistible to adventurous mezzos like Janet Baker and Marilyn Horne, but apart from the beauty of the arias the productions tended to be problematic, let's say. In recent years Handel's operas have been taken out of mothballs and restored to operatic stages as the popular entertainments they originally were. London's favorite composer offered long evenings of brilliant vocalism, visual coups de theatre, titillation, comic interludes, all based on historical or mythological material with little danger of offending the powers that be. Handel's revisionist version of an episode in the life of Julius Caesar ramped up the amusement factor by emphasizing humor, sex, spectacle, and stage business along with the pathos of Cornelia's plight; this production never loses sight of those all-important entertainment values.
Laurent Pelly immediately invokes a melancholy sense of nostalgia by setting the action in the store rooms of a museum. As the curtain rises mid-overture a bevy of workers are meticulously dusting a statue of Julius Caesar; they slide a storage rack of classical busts center stage, and the busts on the shelf burst into song, with articulating mouths (fortunately that's the worst of the sight gags). Amid the bustle of curatorial work Cesare appears unnoticed until he begins to sing. He is apparently an invisible ghost, as the workers distractingly move crates and display cases around him. Two worlds occupy the same space, and sometimes the dance overwhelms the drama–especially given the small scale of the voices–though this imbalance becomes less noticeable and distracting over the evening.
So it proceeds all evening; curators and characters in a delicate choreography, the dramatis personae using props conveniently provided by the workmen. Costumes range from street clothing of modern Parisian workers to generic ancient Roman and Egyptian costumes, generalized for the men, filmy and seductive for the women, with extremely good body suits allowing Cleopatra to appear "topless" in her seduction scene. The second act, set in the painting store room, puts Cleopatra, the female extras, and the banda in 18th century gowns–someone's idea of Handel's notion of the earthly paradise where Cleopatra seduced Caesar. The third act is set in the carpet store room, with workmen mending a rug stage right while stage left Tolomeo enjoys the pleasures of the harem. The two parallel worlds come closest to interacting when the workmen return to the room and react to finding the rugs Achilla has flung around the room during his vengeance aria.
The star of the evening was the orchestra. After Haïm's rocky introduction to the Opéra de Paris (hired to conduct Idomeneo last season, she was replaced after reported difficulties working with the orchestra) she was invited to bring her own band, Le Concert d'Astrée, to the pit of the Palais Garnier. It was a wise choice: the ensemble knows this repertory cold (they appear frequently in the Theatre des Champs-Elysées's cycle of Handel operas) and knows how to work with Haïm's idiosyncrasies. She's a very high-energy presence, a leader who indicates gestures more than beats, sometimes conducting with her head as she plays harpsichord. In her hands orchestral voices become eloquent virtual cast members. Particularly notable were the meltingly beautiful solo cello in Cornelia's first act lament, and the superb natural horn work in Cesare's "Va tacito".
The singers: Lawrence Zazzo was an imperiously confident Caesar but his sort-grained voice lacked presence. Varduhi Abrahamyan as Cornelia wielded ample physical and vocal glamor; while persuasive as the beautiful young widow her acting needs to be more specific. Isabel Leonard as Sesto provided her usual well-schooled and attractive voice and stage presence and was very well received. Countertenor Christophe Dumieux as Tolomeo was deliciously vain and manipulative; his voice had the point and power that Caesar's lacked. Audience favorite Natalie Dessay vamped nonstop from her first entrance atop a supine 20-foot Egyptian phaoroh sculpture. She radiated star power as Cleopatra; vocally she acquitted herself well, though this role calls for a fresher voice, and she did struggle with the penultimate aria, "fra tempeste", completely dropping the octave leaps. I took exception to her kittenish crooning in some of the recitatives, but the audience loved her. [Jane Archibald takes over the role later in the run and should be a nice addition to the cast] Veteran countertenor Dominique Visse stole his scenes as the Egyptian confidant Nireno. Nathan Berg as Achilla blustered entertainingly as Achilla but vocally fell short of his colleagues' level.
All in all, a very nice evening: first-rate musical values and excellent ensemble work, some very fine arias and duets, good and less good casting choices, a clever "concept" that occasionally gets in the way yet amuses without either offending or illuminating. Very little booing from the first-night audience. I don't know whether there are plans to tour the show but it would do well on the festival circuit.