What I said about Giulio Cesare earlier this week has been bothering me because I am not sure that I said it quite right. Also, I was thinking about the differences between the Sellars version of that opera that I recently watched and this one from Glyndebourne in 2005, which is musically excellent and immensely entertaining. These are two quite different productions. The Glyndebourne one is campy and funny and takes the story at its face value. The Sellars one — well, it’s not that it doesn’t take the story at face value, but the goal of the production seems to be to force the story to show itself in the worst possible light. There’s nothing wrong with such an approach in the abstract, of course, but it’s a lot less fun to watch.
So, very different goals with the opera. But there are aspects of these two productions which are strikingly similar.
Here is Susan Lawson singing ‘da tempeste’ from the Sellars version:
And here is Danielle De Niese singing ditto from the Glyndebourne one:
In both cases the aria has been turned into a dance number – and in some ways a similar sort of dance number. But details make an enormous difference. De Niese’s Cleopatra is enthusiastic and adorable and her little show is both entirely within character and completely consistent with everything else that has happened on stage. With Lawson’s version, we’re stil getting Cleopatra putting on a little show, but the meaning of ‘putting on a show’ is quite different. The camera work is not overwhelmingly subtle here. When was the last time you saw a DVD of a Handel opera where we got a close-up shot of the leading lady’s rear end? I am not an expert, but I submit that this is not standard with baroque opera. (This is what I meant before about it being a DVD that is a performance of the opera rather than a DVD of a performance of it – what the camera is doing is part of the story.)
This Cleopatra tells us in no uncertain terms that what she is doing is performing a heavily sexualized cuteness and vulnerability in order to be ogled and handed money. For this to make sense as a way of explaining the political relationship between Egypt and Rome it has to be obviously a pose. Sellars is certainly not arguing that this relationship is as natural as love. Rather, it’s a transaction. Fake love and devotion in exchange for real money. And the way that this production shows us that it’s obviously a pose is to stage it as a burlesque – a type of fake seduction. For this version of the story to have the optimal effect, Cleopatra has to look us in the eye and wink.
With De Niese’s version, and with the rest of that production, there’s far less cynicism to the silliness. The effectiveness of Cleopatra’s exuberant little dance numbers doesn’t depend on the audience seeing them one way and the other characters another. All of the characters in that version are operating in the same plane of campiness. With the Sellars version, some characters have a different relationship to the audience than others. Cleopatra looks us in the eye and makes us cringe, while no one else does anything of the kind. They stay inside the opera.
And this whole glitzy little show is connected to the main metaphor of the production, the swapping of modern Americans for ancient Romans. Cesare is Cleopatra’s audience. We are also Cleopatra’s audience. She’s been winking at us the entire time, after all. So, we’re sort of complicit in whatever it is the two of them are up to, no? Oil and Contra aid and all.
I believe I have had enough Peter Sellars for one week.