Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt). Andreas Scholl, Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sofie von Otter, Philippe Jaroussky. Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini. Stage Production by Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier. A production from the 2012 Salzburg Whitsun Festival. Decca DVD 074 3856. Time: 249 minutes. Two discs.
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW – We live in a time when historically informed performance practice is the preferred approach to music from the Baroque period. Within my lifetime, we have made great strides in understanding how this music should be played and in mastering the instruments to make it happen; that said, it has always struck me as odd that, as much as we honor correct performance practice in the case of Baroque orchestral music, we rarely pay as much attention to the accuracy of the staging of Baroque opera. This new DVD of Handel’s Giulio Cesare is a perfect example of this dichotomy: while the music is rendered with the utmost attention to correct period performance practice, the staging is in the tradition of Regietheatre – literally “director’s” theatre – in this case, interpretive direction gone wild.
Granted, we know much more about how Baroque opera sounded than about how it was staged in its own time. The music survives in written form and our job today is simply to figure out how these scores were meant to be played, but in the case of Baroque opera, while we have written text and librettos, we rarely have written instructions for staging. There are no detailed books of stage directions and little, if any, information is given on sets and costumes. Given this lack of material guidance, staging and directing Handel’s 1724 opera Giulio Cesare must have proven a formidable challenge indeed.
It could be argued that modern directors have often taken the easy way out. They throw up their hands in the face of the daunting research required to do a historically informed production and simply do their own thing. In this case, the team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier have stuck to the original plot but updated it to the present time.
Here, Caesar is invading Egypt for its oil. The fighting depicted is all about Rome gaining control of an important Egyptian energy supply and about Egypt making lots of money. Needless to say, neither Handel nor his librettist Giacomo Francesco Bussani had any such scenario in mind. Leiser and Caurier go even further, making the opera a mind-bending combination of farce, fantasy, horror, and social commentary.
Caesar wears a bright blue suit while his top general Curio wears army fatigues. The Egyptian leaders are dressed as skinheads. Cleopatra wears all manner of form-fitting costumes designed to show off her buxom figure. In Act II, Caesar, sporting 3-D glasses, is entertained by a spectacle in which Cleopatra flies on and off the stage in a rocket ship. All this might have been amusing, except for the fact that both the quality of the music and Cecilia Bartoli’s expressive performance of one of Cleopatra’s most important arias, “V’adoro pupille, saette d’amore,” were seriously compromised by this staging.
But then Leiser and Caurier have made their careers doing this sort of thing. The team declared a few years ago that “It is really the director that allows the music to exist.” And so it goes in Giulio Cesare. Time and again, stage business distracts from solo performances. While singing one of her important arias, Anne Sofie von Otter is upstaged by Christophe Dumaux (Ptolemy) as he simulates masturbation behind her.
Speaking of Ptolemy, the villain of the piece, the depiction of his character surely went well beyond anything seen before in productions of this opera. In his first scene, he is shown abusing a statue of Caesar, to the point of ripping out his entrails and eating his heart. But he is just getting started. Later, he is given yet another masturbation scene and in his moment of greatest triumph is depicted having sex with his sister. Cleopatra, assaulted and humiliated by her brother, is left alone to sing her aria “Piangerò la sorte mia” with a bag over her head! Violence, cruelty, and tastelessness are recurring themes in this bizarre production.
Despite all this, I did find the staging of the final scene to be both imaginative and meaningful. All the principals gather to celebrate the alliance of Caesar and Cleopatra, smoking weed and drinking champagne, and in their final chorus they are even joined by Ptolemy and Achilla who, left murdered on the ground, leap to their feet, and join the party. The message appears to be that this is only an opera and what you have seen was all in fun. But then, the party group slowly disappears and doors at the back of the stage open to reveal very real-looking armored personnel carriers and fully-armed soldiers.
In spite of the dubious shenanigans onstage, musically this production is one of the best one might ever hope to hear. This opera has always been relatively popular as Baroque operas go, but it got a real shot in the arm when Beverly Sills revived it for the New York City Opera in 1966. A recording was made shortly afterwards (RCA 6182) and it remains one of Sills’ stellar achievements.
Our understanding of Baroque music and how it ought to be performed has come a long way in the past 50 years. In the Salzburg production we hear the fruits of that research and performance experience, and the results are impressive. In the Sills performances, the role of Caesar was taken by a baritone (Norman Treigle), but on this Salzburg Whitsun Festival DVD, we hear a countertenor, as Handel intended. Similarly, we hear countertenors in the roles of Ptolemy and Nirena, in accordance with the specifications of the original production. At the 1724 premiere of Giulio Cesare, the role of Cleopatra was taken by a female soprano (Francesca Cuzzoni) and that is the case here. It should be noted, however, that Sills was a coloratura soprano while Bartoli is most accurately described as a coloratura mezzo-soprano. No matter. Bartoli is a phenomenon –a genuine mezzo, with a very convincing soprano upward extension.
It should come as no surprise to Bartoli fans that she manages the high-speed virtuosity of the aria “Da tempeste il legno infranto” with incomparable ease, but even keen admirers may be amazed at her performance of “Piangerò la sorte mia.” Although the tempo is dangerously slow, Bartoli demonstrates a command of phrasing and beauty of tone that is heart-breaking, not to mention an execution of the elaborate ornamentation that is a veritable master class in how to sing this music. Singular artistry in spite of the aforementioned head-bagging mandated by Leiser and Caurier.
Swedish mezzo-soprano von Otter is no less impressive in the role of Cornelia, as she shows us how a great lieder singer can imbue a seemingly simple or repetitive Baroque line with meaning and expressiveness.
As Corneilia’s son Sesto, countertenor Philippe Jaroussky gives a superb performance, producing a real soprano sound – pure, controlled, and capable of the utmost delicacy when required. The duet between mother and son at the end of Act I in which von Otter and Jaroussky combine their voices in almost uncanny harmony is one of the highlights of this production. Due credit must be given to Leiser and Caurier for finding just the right gestures and stage movements to underscore the pathos of this scene.
Unfortunately, it is almost beside the point that countertenor Dumaux sings with control and conviction. As Ptolemy, the villain of the piece, he is painted so black and disgusting by the directors that we can hardly bear to see him take the stage.
No praise is too high for the work done by Giovanni Antonioni and his orchestra. One clearly hears the results of what must have been long hours of preparation to execute each phrase and each ornament with such perfection. Choice of tempi, whether fast or slow or somewhere in between, seemed just right throughout the performance, and the singers and pit players were as one throughout. Special mention must be made of the unnamed horn player who provided the wonderful obbligato during Caesar’s aria “Va tacito e nascosto” in Act I, complete with a terrific cadenza in which singer and hornist toss imitative phrases back and forth.
Cecilia Bartoli is the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. Her initial five-year term was recently extended until 2021.
Bartoli is obviously as fearless an administrator as she is as a singer. Before this 2012 production of Giulio Cesare, she had worked with Leiser and Caurier on several productions at the Zurich Opera. In Salzburg, they teamed up again for Norma (2013) and Iphigenie en Tauride (2015). She obviously likes their work and enjoys working with them. More power to her for being willing to take artistic risks, even when the results may not be to everyone’s taste.
For the 2016 Salzburg Whitsun Festival, Bartoli (minus Leiser and Caurier) was featured in a new production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting. The production will be repeated this summer at the Salzburg Festival. In 2017, the Salzburg Whitsun Festival will present a new production of Handel’s Ariodante and a concert performance of Rossini’s La donna del lago, both starring Bartoli.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.