I’ve seen this production on DVD with a (mostly) different cast and a different orchestra and conductor, and I enjoyed it enough that I got a cheap seat to see it live the other night. (Besides, my general position on live performances of Handel operas is: go to them.)
It was about as entertaining as I expected. The production, by David McVicar, places the action not in the Egypt the original Julius Caesar would have visited, but rather in something approximating the late 19th century. Caesar’s soldiers are British redcoats; his right-hand man Curio is Scottish. But it’s best not to take the setting too literally – Cleopatra swishes around in a black 1920s cocktail dress to charm the Roman hero in Act I, and at the end, Caesar and Cleopatra are attired in gleaming – in the case of Caesar’s silver breastplate, almost blinding – 18th-century style “classical” opera seria costumes. The tone is consistently light-hearted, and the Egyptians get to do a lot of dancing.
One thing that this production did convince me of is that I prefer a mezzo in the title role. David Daniels is all right, but having heard Sarah Connolly swagger gloriously through this role on the DVD of this production from Glyndebourne, there really isn’t much of a contest. Also, this opera contains a lot of people performing various gendery type things. Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar in “v’adoro, pupille” is literally staged; earlier, she teases Tolomeo that he’s not manly enough and Tolomeo himself jumps unpredictably between the stereotypically female and the stereotypically male – part of what makes him alarming is that you have no idea whether he’s going to sit there preening in the mirror or start waving a sword around; Nireno is a fairly femme sort of guy. The more theatrically gendered Egyptians undercut the ostensibly unambiguous ‘manliness’ of Caesar. Having the main role be a woman performing being a man adds an additional little ping to it that I like. Besides, in terms of sound alone, all else being equal, if we’ve got a mezzo and a countertenor of similar quality, I’m going to break for the mezzo.
The audience had a very good time. This production is full of gags – everything from the Egyptians’ dancing to Caesar’s little tiff with the solo violin during “se in fiorito ameno prato” (the violinist wins) to the return of the dead Tolomeo and Achilla at the end and their inability to get the waiters (who are handing around champagne) to serve them. I was surprised when its seemed that no one but me and the friend I went with laughed when the dirigibles show up during “da tempeste” – but hey, I guess you can’t win ’em all. So, lots of light-heartedness, but room enough for the more serious stuff.
As far as serious goes, Natalie Dessay’s performance of “se pietà” was a thing of beauty. The way that bright shimmering sound just slices through the air – amazing. And Patricia Bardon had all the requisite gravity as Cornelia, although it took her a while to get warmed up. “Priva son d’ogni conforto” in Act I felt like an aria that had yet to find its groove, and not all the intonation was perfect. She and Alice Coote (Sesto) had another odd pitch moment during the final moments of “son nata/o a lagrimar/sospirar,” though I’m not sure whose fault that was. Coote’s rendition of “cara speme, questo core” was lovely, especially the phrasing in the repeat of the A section. I also enjoyed countertenor Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo – he hits precisely the right mark between ridiculous and terrifying. And he can definitely sing.
But although there was plenty of dramatic oomph in this, the general air of slapstick that pervades the production led to some of the audience laughing when Cornelia and Sesto kill Tolomeo, which seemed kind of off to me. I mean, she daubs her hands in the dead guy’s blood and paints her son’s face with it. Is this not a little creepy? (The same goes for the scene earlier on when Achilla seems to be on the edge of raping Cornelia – you could feel the audience was not sure whether this was supposed to be funny or not. I’m going with ‘not,’ but that’s just me.) I think this may point to the challenge of this production of the opera. You have to be able to switch (and convey) moods with utter precision, and I’m not sure that was always the case with this performance.