This is not DVD of a production of Giulio Cesare. This is a DVD that is a production of Giulio Cesare. There is a difference.
But I should begin at the beginning. The action of the opera takes place not in the Egypt of the first century BC, but rather in the slightly tacky courtyard of a slightly tacky hotel in the Egypt of the twentieth century. The DVD case claims that it is some unspecified time in the future, but it looks like the 1980s to me. Later, we move to the beach, complete with oil drums. There is a great deal of lawn furniture lying about, as well as numerous garden implements, at least one rubber snake and some pool toys. Cesare (Jeffrey Gall) is the president of the United States and he arrives with the secret service (led by Curio) and accompanied by Sesto (Lorraine Hunt) and Cornelia (Mary Westbrook-Geha).
Here is the overture, opening chorus and Cesare’s first aria.
This section also gives one of the clearest looks at the set as a whole that you get for this entire production. The pictures in the booklet help, but even I am not so theoretically-minded as to argue that the booklet is part of the performance. While watching this you see mostly close-ups of the singers’ faces or tracking of their hands or along their bodies. You get the urge to take hold of the camera operators and drag them back fifteen feet or so. Or start manually removing zoom lenses. I mean, put it this way. If you’d asked me three days ago what color Lorraine Hunt’s eyes were, I would have had no idea. Now I know: green.
And I have no doubt that this is intentional. This is Peter Sellars, after all. And some of the types of framing or detail that we get here are things that an audience watching this production in a concert hall would never see. For example, during Cleopatra’s “tutto può donna vezzosa” and “tu la mia stella” we get repeated shots of nothing but her face, framed in a huge wig, looking right into the camera. After Cleo rubs one out with one of the pool toys she looks at us again and mimes smoking a cigarette. (Side note: the cigarette is imaginary – it’s just a gesture at a cigarette. Which means that this cigarette is metonymical even within the context of the production. My mind, she is blown.)
Indeed, we see a lot of Cleopatra’s face up close in this production, often in this sort of context. Because of the way the staging works and how Susan Larson (Cleopatra) presents this character, the effect is to make one wonder if Cleopatra means any of it at all. Sometimes she seems sincere. But often not. The video direction throws in your face the fact that you are watching this, and Cleopatra knows you are watching this, which means you know she is putting on a performance.
The best instance of this is probably “v’adoro, pupille”:
We see “off stage” into the preparations for Cleopatra’s performance, and the expression on Cleopatra’s face as she is lowered down on an enormous sparkly hook suggests she is doing this almost by rote. When Cesare interrupts, she resumes as if he’s interrupted a well-memorized and often-performed show. She doesn’t care one way or the other, and it doesn’t matter – she just continues where she left off. In the libretto this is a performance, of course. But there’s normally an assumption that what Cleopatra is performing is in some way ‘real’ in the sense of the spectacle being a communication of how she feels. Here, it’s less clear.
And then there is the way they’ve got the musicians on stage set up. They are all dressed in ‘Egyptian’ clothes, and they are all women. The character who is usually Nireno is Nirena here, too. So we’ve got a bevy of ladies, an Egyptian queen phoning it in from an enormous hook, and lots and lots of glitter. Where might all this be headed?
(Next part here.)