June 20, 2002
The San Francisco Opera performance that I had been waiting for all season finally arrived, and I was not disappointed. Händel's Giulio Cesare has quite a lot of beautiful and compelling music in it. It is an opera seria that premiered in 1724 at London's Royal Academy of Music, and the title role was created for a particular famous castrato, Francesco Bernardi (known as Senesino) of Siena. The female lead of Cleopatra was written for the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni.
The opera was a bit odd for modern ears, since so many of the main parts are high. One mezzo-soprano, two sopranos, three altos, and only two basses, no baritones or tenors at all. It took me some time to adjust, to figure out which voice went with which part. However the differences between the singers, especially countertenor David Daniels (Giulio Cesare) and the mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose (Sesto), were marked. Even though they can sing in the same range, and Daniels even sings a couple of the Sestos arias that on his Händel operatic arias recording. Daniels is simply a much larger person than Donose. The arias in question are "Cara Speme", in Act I, Scene 8 and "L'angue offeso", in Act II, Scene 6.
David Daniels and Ruth Ann Swenson (Cleopatra) both have gorgeous voices. Swenson's voice carries better though, and she has a lot of sass. Daniels was more stiff, and his arms sometimes appeared locked in space when he was singing something particularly difficult. Neither of them moved especially well, but Swenson was a better actor. The last time I saw Swenson was in Thomas' Hamlet as Ophelia, which was a much less demanding part.
Bejun Mehta (Tolomeo) and Ruxandra Donose (Sesto) both moved like water, they were very graceful. Mehta has a nice voice, but it is hard to tell since his part was on the small side. Donose was a little breathy and airy, but she sang her main arias well.
Felicity Palmer (Cornelia) was adequate, sometimes her voice sounded quite grand, and other times not so much. She moved stiffly, something about the way she carried her shoulders made her look uncomfortable or old.
Denis Sedov (Achilla) did not carry well in his low range, and it made him seem comical.
The set was not horrible except for a screen made of metal fashioned into a map of the Mediterranean. They also had problems with platforms that rumbled far too loudly when moved, even with the orchestra playing and singing, they were quite audible. One of the screens did not come down properly in the third act, it was a landscape of desert, but Swenson played it off rather charmingly.
The choreography was pretty poor, as usual. The movement in general looked unconvincing and unclear. The ballet dancer who played Terpsichore was rather delightful in her lightness though.
The costumes were amusing because they were Renaissance mixed with Orientalism, however, they were very pretty.