(part one here.)
So, Cleopatra is performing. This is romance ‘staged’ in a very obvious way. It’s hard to miss in ‘v’adoro, pupille.’ It’s rubbed in our faces again in the final scene, where Cesare and Cleopatra emerge in matching red and blue striped bathrobes and a blinding amount of gold jewelry. (I particularly enjoyed Cesar’s line here about the beauty of Cleopatra’s hair while he fingers her very late-80s rat-tail.) But rat-tails and glitter aside, why tell the story in this way?
Part of the answer lies in ‘da tempeste,’ during the course of which very burlesque-like performance Cleopatra is handed bags of money (one of which is labeled ‘contra’ and which she hands back with a little ‘oopsie!’ face). This is not just a show she’s putting on – it’s a transaction.
It may seem as if this is a case of a director forcing a story into places it would not naturally go. But it isn’t, not quite. One of the things about Giulio Cesare performed straight is that the love story is also a story about power. We’ve got a Roman emperor and the Egyptian queen he rescues and restores and who at the end is in a political partnership with Rome but not one that I would call equal. The fact that there is a romance in it muffles this quality of the story, at least for a modern audience. What Sellars has done is render the romance so transparently not about love that the power aspect of it is unavoidable. Cleopatra is luring Cesare in — hence the literal hook on which she descends, like bait, in ‘v’adoro, pupille’ — and getting money and power in exchange, while Cesare/the United States gets a local gal that he can depend on and plenty of oil.
So, we’ve got Cleopatra performing girliness for gain as way of articulating the relationship between Egypt and Rome. This use of sex to talk about power is consistent with even the most traditional reading of the story — even in the stodgiest of stodgy Handel productions, for example, it’s evident that Tolomeo’s pursuit of Cornelia and her outraged rejection of him is about Romans and Egyptians and who submits to whom in addition to it being about Tolomeo being an utter skeeze. Sellars has taken this connection between sex and politics and dragged it to the surface. Certainly it’s worth noting that in addition to Nirena being Nirena rather then Nireno, she seems to mourn Achilla’s death in a rather personal way, and at the end is paired off with Curio. It is also revealed that she’s wearing something made out of black lace underneath the more modest outfit she’s got most of the time. It’s like a little echo of the relationship between Cleopatra and Cesare (Off topic: I will admit to enjoying Tolomeo’s line about ‘take this towel,’ after ‘belle dee di questo core’ because it says ‘questo candido lin’ in the libretto, which is ‘this white linen’ so basically a towel, but in this case it’s a orange and yellow striped beach towel and I don’t care, that was funny.)
So. In this production, professions of love are not personal. It’s all a great big racket. Are there any points in this performance where the emotion is real? I think that there are. There almost have to be, in order to make what is going on with Cesare and Cleopatra stand out. Which brings me to Sesto, but enough is probably enough for one day.
(Next part here.)