Giulio Cesare in Egitto returns to Glyndebourne, in the legendary production by David McVicar and I couldn’t miss it! The action is moved in the late XIX or early XX century, during the British Empire. Cesare is a British general, while “Egypt” becomes a vaguely oriental land, reminiscent of India, the Middle East and Egypt itself. As in the Vienna Ariodante, the stage features a depiction of the sea on the back, represented by rolling “waves” of fabric, with ships floating. The rest is framed in severe columns, and very little else on stage, in the “public” scenes, where the political plot takes place. During the intimate moments (Cleopatra’s bedroom, for example) McVicar goes full Bollywood: colorful curtains, tents, pillows, and the dancing that goes with it.
Many arias involve quite elaborate dancing, that the singers perform while singing (!), together with dancers on stage. In other moments the singers perform choreographed movements, not quite dancing, but moving together in rhythm, always “in character”, to underline the ritualistic aspect of their interactions. All this somehow enhances the music, rather than distracting from it. Often the feeling is one of looking at a very elaborate musical, with an AMAZING score, of course. McVicar exploits the foot-tapping quality of Handel’s music without making a mockery of it, and without forcing the singers in positions or situations where the musical experience is negatively impacted. It was so long since I saw a production I even only marginally liked, I was in tears of joy at how much I loved this one. BRAVO MCVICAR!!
The story is that of Julius Caesar arriving in Egypt after defeating Pompeo, in the middle of a power struggle between Tolomeo and Cleopatra (sibilings/lovers). Caesar needs allies in Egypt to consolidate his power and to establish a colonial government; Tolomeo kills Pompeo (who had fled to Egypt) in an attempt to ingratiate himself with Caesar, but he is instead horrified, and sides with the (beautiful, sexy, scheming) Cleopatra. Caesar and Cleopatra become lovers, defeat Tolomeo, and sign a treaty where they “reign together” over Egypt. The plot is complicated by the presence of Pompeo’s widow and son: Cornelia and Sesto. Cornelia is the object of Tolomeo’s and his general Achilla’s lust, she gets imprisoned and attacked, while Sesto tries to avenge his father, and manages to kill Tolomeo eventually.
The musical production was astounding. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with William Christie as conductor, gave their usual stellar reading of Handel’s score, with details, nuances, perfect tempi, thoughtful dynamics. Christie was supporting the singers step by step, giving every attack, breathing with them. The only slight disappointment were the horns in “Va tacito”, which, compared to the perfection of the rest of the performance, squeaked and squawked a bit more than needed. I know, I know, playing the Baroque horn is fiendishly difficult, kudos to them for managing as well as they did.
Sarah Connolly was singing (probably) her last Giulio Cesare. You guys know how much I love this woman. I read reviews before going, and everybody commented that her projection was not adequate, and it was hard to hear her. I can honestly say that last night this was not true. My friend Dehggial, who was there for the second time, said that her projection had considerably improved from the first run she saw. Maybe she needed time to shake Wagner off her vocal chords, I don’t know. It is true that her voice is not always the strongest, in general (this was obvious even in Ariodante in Vienna), but I enjoyed her performance immensely. Her coloratura was perfect and her style impeccable, as customary. Her interpretation was incredible: her legendary swagger and posturing on stage were cranked up to the max. I cannot imagine a more commanding Caesar. Sarah for Emperor!!
In this production Cleopatra is a little minx, a sexy coquette who uses all arts to beguile Caesar and form a political partnership. In all this, she honestly falls in love with him, so she’s not false, or deceiving. Joélle Harvey has the perfect voice for the part: her top rings bright and strong, her coloratura is powerful, and she can find tenderness and depth for her slow, lamenting arias. She also made a sincere effort in the dancing and the acting; she is not a natural, on stage, but her performance was very fun.
A natural on the stage is instead Christophe Dumaux, who has perfected the role of Tolomeo to the last detail. He was extremely physical on stage, jumping up and down the furniture, dancing, doing flip-flops, perfectly conveying the image of a crazy, lascivious, ultimately wimpy King. His costumes were amazing. I won’t even comment on his voice: he is PERFECT. Always.
Sesto, Pompeo’s son, was Anna Stéphany, I was hearing her live for the first time, and I was extremely impressed. She is maybe more of a short soprano than a mezzo, although her middle voice is remarkable, and the color of the voice is just beautiful. She showed great commitment to the role, and her “Cara speme” rivalled the memory of Jaroussky’s. I need to hear her again.
Patricia Bardon was Cornelia, Sesto’s mother and Pompeo’s widow. She has a very interesting contralto voice, deep and warm. Her interpretation of the vengeful aristocrat was spot-on. The duet with Stéphany “Son nata a lagrimar” was one of the highlight of the evening: Christie took the slowest possible tempo, and the two of them just carried through, with the most amazing breath, perfect intonation (and god knows how hard it is, when things are that slow), the moment was tender, moving and magical.
In Giulio Cesare there is a “funny” support character, Cleopatra’s faithful servant Nireno, and it was sung by no other than Kimchilia Bartoli!!! AKA Kangming Justin Kim, a very young countertenor who I had the pleasure to meet in Salzburg a couple of years ago; I would not have guessed I would watch him debut at Glyndebourne so soon! I have heard singers make a travesty of the role of Nireno, screaming and generally singing out of tune in an attempt to be “funny”, but Kim was always on point, always precise, and kept the squealing at a reasonable level. His countertenor is very high, with shiny top notes and a beautiful legato, always perfectly supported, with almost no trace of the “metal edge” which often plagues this Fach. His character did not give him a chance to show Kimchilia Bartoli’s sparkling coloratura, but it did give him plenty of opportunities to show his acting and dancing abilities, and his comic talent. He was a riot. McVicar puts Nireno on stage much more often than strictly necessary, as a silent character, and Kim was hilarious with his antics. I liked him so much that I ALMOST forgive him for singing Cherubino next season in London. Almost. Well not quite. But almost.
Bass John Moore did a very good job as the evil Egyptian general Achilla, showing very good control of his booming voice in his two arias.
One interesting feature of the production was the complex gender interplay, which, as usual, is a natural aspect to explore in Baroque operas, due to the presence of characters who are men but sing like women. Here we had the main character, the hero, warrior Julius Caesar, played by a woman, who was heavily flirting and falling in love with a hyper-feminine version of woman, Cleopatra. Then we had the very ambiguous Tolomeo, who seemed to defy gender description simply out of pure lust and lasciviousness. His costumes often mirrored Cleopatra’s: he was prancing around in skirts and Odalisque-ish jeweled tops. (At a certain point, talking of her sister, he declares something like “A woman cannot rule a kingdom!” and his general looks at him in a drag outfit and explodes in laughter.) Nireno is where the camp side of the opera reached the max: Kim was irresistible. In contrast to all this, we had a hyper-masculine Achilla and Caesar’s soldiers, some of whom were, in fact, wearing a kilt.
I want to mention the Glyndebourne audience, which, once again, puzzled me. In the area where I was sitting everybody was quiet, and even the coughing was at a tolerable level, but these people laugh at anything. The production was, as I said, pretty funny, but, for example, the audience exploded in a roar of laughter at the death of Tolomeo, killed by Sesto. The music is extremely tragic; Sesto himself and Cornelia are in utter shock at the event, and the audience is guffawing along. Christie literally turned around and look at us with a face saying, “WTF are you laughing about?!?” I felt shame for them.