Handel – Giulio Cesare / Gall, Larson, Hunt et al. 1990 (3)

(Previous section here.)

The most moving performance in this opera comes from Lorraine Hunt as Sesto. While Cleopatra is having terrific fun with pool toys, bags of money and the President, and Cesare is spending much of his time either gladhanding or scampering about and looking like kind of a doofus (those blue track pants he’s got on during ‘v’adoro, pupille’ are — well, let us just say that he is not doing his country proud, sartorially), while all this is going on Sesto is having a bit of a personal crisis. Which is perfectly understandable given that he has just seen his father’s head brought in in a box.

The staging is not calculated to provide the perfect setting for intense emotion. Indeed, I’d say it’s calculated to provide the perfect setting for precisely the opposite, and this is why you cast someone like Lorraine Hunt as Sesto in this situation. The sound of her voice alone would increase the emotional depth of just about anything. “Cara speme” for example is performed with the expressive phrasing one would expect — you get the beating heart of the music. Or with Sesto and Cornelia’s “son nato/a a lagrimar/sospirar” which in terms of how it looks is mired in the ‘pandemonium of complicated hand gestures’ type of Sellars stage direction that can work so brilliantly at times (Theodora!) but here does not — but which sounds wonderful. Mary Westbrook-Geha (Cornelia) has a very unadorned, simple-sounding voice, which is perfectly appropriate for this role in this production. Cornelia is not an ambiguous or complex person here.

Sesto is, though. He begins by wanting revenge, he steels himself to go through with it, he kills Tolomeo — but by the end, he has realized what a horrific situation this is. In the final scene, while Cesare and Cleopatra are exchanging creepy smiles and even creepier gestures of affection, Sesto cannot keep his hands off Tolomeo’s body and slathers his own face, neck and arms with the blood as if convinced it needs to go there for this situation to make sense. Sesto has realized that killing Tolomeo is not just getting back at some jerk: he is now complicit in a much larger and quite awful situation without ever really intending to be. He’s come of age, in other words. Hunt manages to communicate all this even while wearing a headband/sunglasses combination that make Sesto look like the Karate Kid. It’s sort of badass, actually, and I am impressed by how distracting it turns out not to be.

Here is “la giustizia ha già sull’arco,” not long before Sesto kills Tolomeo:

One more point about the music. Or, two points. First, there is something about the way the orchestral music is performed here that sounds old-fashioned to me. I can’t put my finger on it, but I notice it in the way the strings sound, and sometimes with the tempo – the overture, for example, has a sort of slow tick-tock feel to it. I wonder if this is meant to contrast with the modernity of the staging? Second, there is a great deal of fooling around with the details of the music, as during “presti omai l’Egizia terra” where Cesare is speaking to the crowd and there is a passage of ornamentation that tracks with or describes him floundering to keep control of his notes. This kind of thing happens repeatedly. I’m not sure whether it’s funny or irritating.

And in general that was my reaction to this. I’m not sure whether it’s entertaining or whether it’s mainly just irritating. Without the emotional weight Hunt provides the whole thing would just feel flimsy and silly. But with Sesto there, feeling some genuine things, the burlesque-y bits make sense because of the contrast. Without that counterweight, all the lawnchairs and pool toys and blinking lights would be merely silly, but with it, it’s silliness that is doing something. It’s been given some boundaries and made into a way of talking about great powers and little despots. (Whether that’s what you want to have a conversation about is another question.)

I can’t really say that I enjoyed this, however. For one thing, I’m not sure what the point is. I don’t think that the modern political analogy illuminates the emotional core of Handel’s opera, because — well, because this production makes the point that it does by deliberately undercutting much of the emotional punch of the music. Even Cleopatra’s “piangerò la sorte mia” seems off because it appears to be almost genuine and one ends up thinking — do I trust this? Is she serious? The general drift of Sellars’s production is at odds with the thing one wants to do with opera which is to get sucked into the interior logic and emotion of the music.

I discussed a production of Alcina once where the problem I had with it was that the director did not seem to trust the music to express what needed to be expressed. Here, it seems as if the director does not believe in what the music is trying to do.

I mean, if you listen to Giulio Cesare it’s an opera that takes Rome and a certain type of ‘Romans on top’ ‘magnificence of empire’ shtick fairly seriously. Or at least, the music does not seem to me to undercut the idea that the way the story ends represents order restored and generally a good thing all around. The opera can resonate with a modern audience because the music and the characters have enough complexity that they cannot help but be interesting (and, of course, there is an unintended campiness to it that some modern productions have engaged with to utter perfection – you don’t have to take it completely seriously to take it seriously, if you know what I mean). But what Sellars has done is to rip the thing open, pull all of the most disturbing aspects of it to the surface and say: ‘this is what this is really about – what do you think about that?’

(last bit here.)

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