The Metropolitan Opera’s biggest success so far this year has been Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt), in a production by David McVicar. It transports the action from Roman times to just before WWI, with the colonizing British in place of the marauding Romans, with results ranging from the hilarious, through the bizarre, to the simply moving.
Enthusiasts living away from New York have been clamoring to see it in cinemas on the Met’s Live in HD transmissions, but that’s their only reliable option as it isn’t yet available on DVD. There’s one recourse, however. This same McVicar production was originally seen in the UK’s Glyndebourne opera house, and that version is both available on DVD and has been uploaded onto YouTube. The cast is different from the Met’s, naturally, but the production is, by all accounts, virtually the same.
The setting may be mostly British colonial, but there’s a Cleopatra (Daniele De Niese), albeit in disguise as somebody else, flitting around in a short skirt with both umbrella and sunglasses. Black storm clouds loom over the breaking waves that form the backdrop, and on another occasion WWI zeppelins progress menacingly across the sky.
You might assume that this is some kind of political deconstruction of Handel’s early 18th century score, but any suggestion of political seriousness is banished by the habit of almost all the major characters of dancing through their arias as well as singing them. “Bollywood!” the critics have chorused, and they’re surely right. But very welcome this influence is when the result is as delightful as it is here.
Handel wrote for mostly upper-register voices — castratos, sopranos and mezzo-sopranos — and this production is loyal to his intentions (there have been ones where the voices have been brought down an octave to accommodate baritones and basses). Thus Cesare (Caesar) is played by a woman, Sarah Connolly, while Tolomeo (Ptolemy) is the French counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux, an instinctive comic if ever there was one.
Cornelia, who mostly gets soulful, serious arias, is sung by the mezzo Patricia Bardon, and her son Sesto (Sextus) is the marvelous soprano Angelika Kirchschlager (Octavian in Robert Carsen’s Rosenkavalier, reviewed in the Taipei Times April 10, 2011). Both are outstanding, and I for one could listen to Kirchschlager’s incisively pure tones indefinitely.
One of the few lower-register voices present is Christopher Maltman as Achilla — you have to try to forget his having played the lead in the lamentable film Don Giovanni (Juan, reviewed December 18, 2012).
I’ve said that the cast in this Glyndebourne version is different from that in the current Met production, but it has to be said that both Dumaux and Rachid Ben Abdeslam (as the eunuch Nireno) repeated their UK roles in New York, while Daniele De Niese took over the role of Cleopatra after the Met’s first night, when Natalie Dessay was indisposed.
There was only one disappointment — Cesare’s show-stopping aria, Va tacito e nascosto (How silently, how stealthily), accompanied by the sound of hunting-horns, was visually rather staid. Yet if ever there was a time for pulling out all the stops surely it was this. Massed flags might have done the trick, but it was not to be.
The rediscovery of Handel’s operas has been a major shot in the arm for opera houses over the last 20 years. If some are still unconvinced of their attraction, this is a pair of DVDs to convince them.
As for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by William Christie, they play with great gusto, and the harpsichord is clearly amplified; in other productions it’s inaudible when this isn’t the case. At one point a solo violinist plays on stage, while Cesare resorts to whistling to keep up with it — all very much par for the course in this inventive enterprise.
The only real objection is that it’s too long. You rarely hear this complaint with Mozart or Wagner, but somehow Handel’s music is too unvarying to sustain four hours and more.
I’ve recently got round to listening to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s CD Traditions and Transformations which aspires to bring together works that demonstrate an indebtedness to Asia. So-called “art music,” in other words classical music, has always taken a lot from its local folk music, and sooner or later Asian music too was going to be tapped for inspiration by European composers.
It’s a bit of a mish-mash. There’s a forgettable piece about the Biblical King Solomon, made no better by having Yo-Yo Ma (馬友友) as cello soloist; another by a modernist who used to make instruments from items found lying around in junk yards, played here by Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble; and a concerto for pipa (a Chinese lute) and orchestra, two elements that manifestly don’t go together. By far the best item is the Scythian Suite, the youthful Prokofiev’s answer to the older Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But there are plenty of other recordings of this.
Finally, Peter Hill’s brand new recording of Book One of Bach’s set of 48 preludes and fugues, The Well-Tempered Clavier, is exceptionally attractive. Hill plays the music as if it’s a secret between you and him. The contrast with, say, Sviatoslav Richter’s more dynamic rendering, fine though it is, couldn’t be more marked. Hill’s piano-playing whispers to you, as it were, with the result that your attention’s immediately caught. And the more you hear in this style, the more you’re convinced the music is a spell that’s being cast over you, something magical -- which of course is exactly what it is.