Handel – Giulio Cesare / Gall, Larson, Hunt et al. 1990 (1)

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.)

9 thoughts on “Handel – Giulio Cesare / Gall, Larson, Hunt et al. 1990 (1)

  1. In all the reviews of Sellars’ DVDs I’ve read you and I are the only ones to make an issue of his video-direction. There seems to be an unwritten rule of DVD reviewing that how it’s put on disc doesn’t matter. Only “higher” things like the singing and stage direction are worthy of mention. There’s not much point reviewing the stage production if one can’t see it!


    1. Exactly! And especially in this case, where it seems like the video direction is strongly related to the general concept of the production – I mean, framing like what I saw in this DVD does not happen by accident.


  2. The second clip was very interesting: the aria of Nirenius in the beginning was not in the original version of the opera but Händel added it to the later revivals. I like it a lot as it reminds the theme of the second of the German Arias (which I think was composed about the same time).
    I saw a month ago a production of Julius Caesar in Finnish National Opera: the general theme was something like “the Americans in Iraq”; Americans in battle fatigues and tanks, Caesar as general, and Al Qaida style interrogation scenes , news reporters etc. I guess this was inevitable at the age we live in, but luckily it was not taken too seriously. Cleopatra and Tolomeo were dressed most of the time in fantasy baroque dresses, and there was a battle scene between them on gilded statues of horses. In “v’adoro, pupille” scene Clopatra was hanging close to the ceiling of the stage and had a dress running down all the way and covering most of the stage. In the following aria by Caesar he was dancing with Asterix and Obelix…
    BTW there have been productions of Julius Caesar also in both Tallinn and Stockholm this year, so Händel seems to be very popular in these parts of world…


    1. The ‘Americans in Iraq’ one sounds interesting – I’m glad people didn’t take it too seriously. (And if they’ve got fantasy baroque dresses and gilded statutes, it sounds like the production was done with a sense of humor too.) Sometimes Handel works as political allegory, and sometimes not. I’m still figuring out what I think about the political aspects of this Sellars production.

      In the production you saw, did they have a mezzo or a countertenor as Cesare? I’ve seen/heard both, and sometimes I like one more and sometimes the other.

      That extra aria of Nirena’s reminded me of the German Arias too – I’m glad someone else noticed this as well!


      1. I don’t have a fixed view on the mezzo vs. countertenor issue for Caesar or, for that matter, any of the alto castrato roles. It depends on the voice and the optics. The first time I saw GC Ewa Podles was singing Caesar and Isabel Bayrakdarian was singing Cleo. That Podles was about a foot shorter and two feet wider than Isabel was a bit jarring!


        1. This is true – you just have to go with what works in aesthetic terms. My favorite Cesare ever on DVD is Sarah Connolly — she both looked and sounded the part. (On CD, Jennifer Larmore is hard to beat, I think). But I’ll cheerfully listen to a countertenor in this role if it sounds good and the drama works.


  3. Both Caesar and Tolomeo were countertenors (Franco Fangioli and Alon Harari), which was interesting as this was first time I have heard countertenors sing live. Although they sang quite quietly as compared to the ladies.
    Yes, the production had lot of humor: a strip tease scene for Cleopatra and a superman suit for Sesto to go after Tolomeo, for example. They tried to go more serious mood in the end; during the final chorus Cornelia and Sesto committed suicides, Cleopatra found a viper to play with and Julius had a shirt full of knife holes and blood. But after three hours of comedy it didn’t work too well anymore…


    1. I think that probably points to one of the tricky things about this opera. It’s got so much in it that can easily turn campy or humorous for a modern audience, but it’s also quite serious too – trying to do both of these things at once is really difficult.


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