Handel: Giulio Cesare
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 10 June 2018
It is no surprise that David McVicar’s 2005 production of Handel’s glorious Giulio Cesare proved to be so popular. Revived twice in the years just after its first performance, it now, after a gap of a few years, reaches its third revival. The first night on 10 June was the 38th performance at Glyndebourne, and the remaining performances are already sold out. Handel’s opera, and McVicar’s interpretation, really do tick all the boxes, added to which is the outstanding cast of the current run (three of whom survive from the original cast) and the return of the original conductor, William Christie.
First performed in 1724, Giulio Cesare was one of Handel’s most successful operas. The plot combines a number of threads, centred on the historic 48/7 BCE venture of Julius Caeser (Giulio Cesare) into Egypt, initially in pursuit of Pompey (Pompeo – murdered at the start of the opera), and then in pursuit of Cleopatra, who was embroiled in a civil war with her younger brother Ptolemy XIII (Tolomeo), joint ruler of Egypt. At the time, Cleopatra would have been around 21, Ptolemy about 14. Pompeo’s wife and son (Cornelia and Sesto) plan to avenge his death, while Cleopatra attempts to dispose Tolomeo to become sole ruler. All three of them call on Cesare to assist their plans, aided by Cleopatra’s seduction of Cesare (initially in her disguise as ‘Lidia’) who falls in love with her. Tolomeo captures Cornelia and Sesto, and falls for Cornelia, who has fought off the advances of Achilla, Tolomeo’s general. Tolomeo then defeats Cesare in battle, assumes him drowned, and captures Cleopatra. The not-drowned Cesare rescues her and does battle with Tolomeo, who is killed by Sesto in revenge and to protect his mother Cornelia from Tolomeo’s advances. Cesare crowns Cleopatra at sole Queen of Egypt in return for her allegiance to Rome.
In this production, the initial setting is Egypt during the British occupation of 1882, complete with pith helmets and the fezzes of the declining Ottoman Empire. This gets increasingly blurred as things unfold. Added to this was a smattering of Bollywood, many comedic touches (stamping on feet being one of them, another being Cleopatra planting her umbrella, and stubbing out her cigarette, in the urn containing Pompeo’s ashes) and the inevitable camp undertones that appeal to a large contingent of opera audiences. It is noticeable that many in the Glyndebourne audience nod off in the quieter moments (the man next to me was asleep within the first 15 minutes), but there were enough moments of musical drama to pull them out of their slumbers. Another Glyndebourne oddity is the remarkable level of ignorance from many of the otherwise extraordinarily pretentious audience. One day I will write a review based on overheard comments, but will just leave it for now with the note that I heard some real humdingers, not least on the tricky subject of gender fluidity and women portraying men in opera.
The roles of Cesare and Cleopatra were originally sung by the famed castrato Senesino and soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, and Handel made sure they had the musical focus. Sarah Connolly was the original Cesare and is fully absorbed into the role. She dominates the stage, with an extraordinary portrayal of the many facets of Cesare’s life. On this opening night, she noticeably reigned in her volume for Handel’s more energetic passages, leaving her more forceful voice for more static moments. Joélle Harvey took on the role of Cleopatra, under the eye of the 2005 original – now, of course, ensconced as Mrs Glyndebourne. A powerful performance, with excellent singing and wonderful acting. Anna Stéphany’s Sesto was extremely impressive – she seems to be an absolute natural at these trouser roles. John Moore’s was a powerful Achilla; Kangmin Justin Kim a camp Nireno, Cleopatra’s servant; Patricia Bardon’s sang the role of Cornelia, and Christophe Dumaux the treacherous Tolomeo – also described as a ‘frivolous fop’.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were on their usual impeccable form. Lead by Matthew Truscott, they featured excellent string continuo from Luise Buchberger and Cecelia Bruggemeyer. Michael Gurevich was an impressive on-stage violinist doing musical battle with Cesare. Va tacito e nascosto was a wonderfully choreographed diplomatic exchange between Cesare and Tolemea with Handel’s (in this case, literally) foot-tapping rhythms leading to some clever dance manoeuvres as the pair parried. A lovely comedy moment came with the final chorus, sung by all the cast, with the oft-occurring problem that two of them are dead. This saw the blood-soaked Tolomeo sitting next to his revengeful murderer, the bemused boy Sesto, whose mother took him to one side to whisper something along the lines of “it’s opera, dear”.
One aspect of the production that I did appreciate was that, with a few notable exceptions, singers were usually left alone to sing their arias, albeit with antics of their own, without the usually directorial clutter of surrounding action. I am sure this production will return but, in the meantime, there is a Glyndebourne DVD of the 2005 production available, and many extracts can be found on the internet.
Photos: Bill Cooper/Glyndebourne