Giulio Cesare

Giulio Cesare at The Met

Giuliocesare_10052s* Notes *
David McVicar's production of Giulio Cesare (Act III pictured left, photograph by Marty Sohl) had a fourth performance at the Metropolitan Opera last night. Having attended no less than six performances of the Met's previous production, it was nice to see that McVicar's offering is much less staid. The shifts in costumes must have been confusing for those not familiar with the music, especially if one was seated far from the stage. Cleopatra, for instance, had everything from a long braid to a bob. The set, designed by Robert Jones, is both quite simple, in that it is transformed using sumptuous cloths, and elaborate, given the mechanized seascape used as a background. Andrew George's campy choreography is a delight. There were many dance moves that I will be practicing at home to Händel's music for hours to come. The more serious scenes did not come off as nicely, Cornelia's blood lust in Act III was alarming, and hearing audience members laugh at this even more so.

Maestro Harry Bicket kept the orchestra in line, neat and square. Having the violin soloist on stage for Act II's "Se in fiorito ameno prato" was charming. One of the horns in the finale did not play particularly well, but the horn soloist made very few errors during "Va tacito e nascosto." The chorus, relegated to the pit, sang well as usual. Guido Loconsolo (Achilla) sounded gritty. Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo) continues to improve as a singer, he is an excellent villain. His voice tends toward pretty and girlish, but he was able to convey the cruelty of his character. Alice Coote's voice contrasted perfectly with Patricia Bardon's, though both are mezzo-sopranos. Coote gasped slightly as Sesto, but was sweet and light, yet still had good volume. Bardon sang a rich, deep, and tragic Cornelia. The gravity of her role is a bit at odds with the production.

Natalie Dessay seemed to be giving the role of Cleopatra her all. She is fully committed to all her movements, and she is a pleasure to watch. She is vocally less consistent, there is an undercurrent of frog-like ugliness to her sound. Her high tessitura can glitter without any harshness, but there were times when her voice seemed to disappear. One of her notes in "V'adoro pupille" was rather strange and out of place. However, her "Piangerò la sorte mia" was lovely. David Daniels was perfectly fine as Giulio Cesare, his singing is robust, though he does have a lot of vibrato. There is a certain smoothness to the transitions between different parts of his voice.

* Tattling *
There were some problems with the white curtains during "Tu la mia stella sei."

In Family Circle there were many watch alarms at each hour and people chatted during the music.

Les Arts Florissants' 2nd Performance of Giulio Cesare

Scholl2010 * Notes *
The second performance of Giulio Cesare at Salle Pleyel came together better than the first. Les Arts Florissants sounded more cohesive. The concertmaster did not break any strings this time, and her intonation was more accurate, but her playing for "Se in fiorito ameno prato" was still screechy and not beautiful. The horn soloist still hit many unpleasant notes in "Va tacito e nascosto" but her mistakes were less grating than on Tuesday. However, the three horns in the March of the last scene were awful, and were laughed at by various audience members.

The singing was consistent, the cast is extraordinary. Philippe Jaroussky (Sesto) and Nathalie Stutzmann (Cornelia) were definitely at their best in their duet at the end of Act I. Cecilia Bartoli was delicate and sweet in "Vadoro pupille." She also sang "Piangero la sorte mia" exquistely. Andreas Scholl seemed less tense than before, his voice came out more, though he was difficult to hear during "Al lampo dell' armi." He did cough twice during the concert. Scholl sang "Dall'ondoso periglio...Aure, deh, per pietà" with particular elegance.

* Tattling * 
The clapping did not start as early as it had on Tuesday, and people even managed to applaud after the music was done. The audience whispered a little, and there were two very noisy watch alarms on separate occasions. There was a medical emergency in the center terrace during "Da tempeste il legno infranto." As Cecilia Bartoli sang, an older woman lost consciousness, perhaps she fainted or had a seizure. The people around her checked her pulse and tried shaking her awake, but had to fetch medical help. The woman was able to walk out of the hall, but there was a noticeable pause between Cleopatra's aria and the recitative between Cornelia and Sesto that followed.

Les Arts Florissants' Giulio Cesare

Cecilia * Notes *
The Tuesday opening of Giulio Cesare at Salle Pleyel was stunning. For one thing, most of the singing was breathtaking. Both low voices were lovely, these being Andreas Wolf (Curio) and Umberto Chiummo (Achilla). The latter enunciated particularly well, and his aria "Se a me non sei crudele" was strong. Rachid Ben Abdeslam seemed quite excited to be on stage as Nireno, as did Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo. Dumaux is such a clown, perhaps a touch too much for the villain in an unstaged concert version of this work. On the other hand, our tragic Sesto, Philippe Jaroussky, was pitch-perfect. His voice is bright, warm, and light, gleaming above the orchestra. Nathalie Stutzmann (Cornelia) was a fine foil, her voice seemed bottomless.

In the title role, Andreas Scholl, started off quietly, and was overwhelmed by the orchestra at more than one point. His voice warmed up after the night wore on, and the second half went more smoothly than the first. Scholl did crack on one note near the end of "Dall'ondoso periglio...Aure, deh, per pietà," though he sang the rest sublimely. Cecilia Bartoli sang with beauty, she was coy when pretending to be Lidia, and imperious as Cleopatra. There were a few times when Bartoli had too much vibrato, and this wobbling had an unpleasant quality to it. However, overall the singers were wonderful.

Les Arts Florissants had a few mishaps. William Christie did keep the musicians together and his tempi seemed appropriate. In general the playing was clear and fine. However, the concertmaster broke her E string in Act I, and it took a long time for everything to get back in place. It was interesting to watch how she traded her violin with her stand mate, someone from behind passed up a good E string, and the stand mate restrung the concertmaster's violin, trying to get it in tune without disrupting the music. Unfortunately, some of the violin solos were out of tune and squeaky, though this is understandable, given the circumstances. The horn soloist also had some intonation issues, she hit a score of sour notes in "Va tacito e nascosto."

* Tattling * 
The audience was quiet, though the men behind me in the second balcony did talk during the first chorus, were hushed, and snorted derisively at the suggestion that they should be silent. Nonetheless, they did not speak again during the music. The clapping was vehement, and although we were asked to not applaud after each number, somehow our enthusiasm got the better of us. It was a shame that some of us could not wait until after the orchestra stopped playing to cheer and clap.

Giulio Cesare in Lausanne

Giuliocesarelausanne* Notes *
A production of Giulio Cesare opened at Opéra de Lausanne last Friday. The opera was cut down, and the performance was only three hours long. Emilio Sagi's production was on the traditional side, the setting looked like a Baroque take on the Roman and Ancient Egyptian worlds. In that sense it was not unlike the Metropolitan Opera production that was in San Francisco and San Diego. The costumes, the work of Jesús Ruiz Moreno, were pretty, though the beading was a bit loud. The costumes of Cornelia and Sesto looked medieval, but the Egyptian costumes and the other Roman costumes were what one would expect, though all of the former wore white, and all of the latter black. Eduardo Bravo's lighting was at times too stark, rendering the singers unnaturally purple.

There were some silly aspects to the staging, notably the giant statue head used as the severed head of Pompeo and the fight scene between the Egyptians and Romans in Act III Scene 1. Several ropes were hanging from the ceiling and instead of attacking each other, the dancers batted at ropes under strange lighting. I must admit, I laughed a lot at this part and barely contained myself.

Yannis François and Florin-Cezar Ouatu acted and sang well as Curio and Nireno, respectively. Bass Riccardo Novaro was quite brutal as Achilla, he had fine volume, at least from the second row of the house. Christophe Dumaux is great as a buffoon, I remember him as Unulfo in the Met's Rodelinda. He was amusing as Tolomeo, and though his voice has a light prettiness, his control is imperfect. He was rather quiet in his falsetto and much too loud when notes fell into his actual range. On the other hand, Max Emanuel Cencic (Sesto) had both volume and brightness. He did, however, lack precision in diction and intonation. Charlotte Hellekant (Cornelia) looked far too young to be Cencic's mother, but was convincing in her beauty, as she is wooed by Curio, Achilla, and Tolomeo. Her diction was good, but her tone lacked richness. In contrast, Elena de la Merced could have been singing in Finnish, I could barely make out a word. She looked absolutely stunning as Cleopatra, but when she sang the word piangerò, it sounded like "kangigo." She sang "Piangerò la sorte mia" especially well, despite her diction. Generally her intonation was good, but her higher notes were terribly strained, both loud and harsh.

The highlight of the evening was definitely Andreas Scholl in the titular role. He was amazing, with beautiful control in volume and tone. He made some hilarious faces as Giulio Cesare, but is more convincing than David Daniels or Ewa Podleś. He was overwhelmed in one aria by the orchestra, and he also completely showed off holding the first note of "Aure, deh per pietà."

I was not much impressed by the orchestra, under the direction of Ottavio Dantone. The nadir was the horn solo in "Va tacito e nascosto" that had many sour notes, and just kept going badly.

* Tattling *
The audience distinguished itself by being one of the worst I've ever encountered. There were no cellular phones or watch alarms, but people could not stop speaking. Especially at the beginning, whenever there was no singing, people would immediately start conversing. The pair of women in Box A on the orchestra level were particularly rude. During the overture, they deliberated for several minutes on whether or not they should move to the center as the box was quite off to the right side of the house. They stomped to the middle during the music. Of course, the patrons who had those seats arrived during Act I and the two women had to stomp back to their box.
After they settled down, the men in Row A Seats 26 and 28 felt the need to speak during "Dall' ondoso." Then a woman in Row C Seat 26 spoke at full volume during "Io fra l'onde."

The audience clapped with great gusto at the end, and there were about 10 curtain calls. I was glad to note that the Swiss have the same habit as I've noted among Bavarians and Hungarians of clapping all together.

There was a funny moment in the staging, at the beginning of Act II Scene 7, Nireno spells out Cleopatra in large blocks of Greek letters. The dancers wrap them up in cloth and take them away except for the "K." Tolomeo later comes by and is supposed to stab the block letter, but he must have missed, for everyone in the audience laughed.


Ken_howard_brian_asawa_lisa_medThe Met production of Händel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto opened at San Diego Opera last Saturday. This production was in San Francisco in 2002, so I was familiar with both the music and the staging. This was somewhat unfortunate, as it started off badly, Ewa Podleś, in the lead role, was ahead of the orchestra. The conductor, Kenneth Montgomery, attempted to catch up to Podleś, and it was just painful, they sounded rushed and confused. It was a disappointment, as Podleś has an incredible voice. She was also off during the aria "Va tacito e nascosto." The production would have benefited from a prompter. If there was one, I did not see this person, and it certainly did not sound like there was a souffleur.

Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux played and sang the part of Sesto rather well, her aria that ends Act II was one of the best moments of the evening. Perhaps my poor impression of her in Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria was just because the production was so awful, because she sang well in L'Italiana in Algeri.

Countertenor Brian Asawa was fabulous as the villain, Tolomeo, acting and singing well. He seemed so unassuming when he replaced David Daniels in Saul, I was surprised to see how much he swaggered and so forth.

I was unimpressed by Lisa Saffer's Cleopatra, her voice is nice, if not somewhat bland, until she gets to her high range. When singing loudly at this range, she sounded out of control.

I hope that Florida Grand Opera's production of this opera, which comes to Seattle next year, is better. Alexandra Deshorties joins Podleś and Asawa, it should be interesting.

Da tempeste il legno infranto (Act III, Scene 7)

Da tempeste il legno infranto,
se poi salvo giunge in porto,
non sa più che desiar.
Così il cor tra pene e pianto,
or che trova il suo conforto,
torna l'anima a bear.

* * *

I managed to get a standing room ticket for last night's performance of Giulio Cesare, though I was somewhat intimidated by figuring out the process for such things. Apparently there are 200 standing room tickets for each performance, and they go on sale at 10 am the day of the performance. They let standees in a particular door 70 minutes before the curtain time, by number, and there is a numbered line painted on the ground outside of the entrance.

Kip Cranna, the Musical Administrator of the San Francisco Opera, gave a talk about Giulio Cesare before the opera. He gave a general history of the composition itself, the historicity of the libretto, and a bit about the musical form. I learned that this opera was originally written for three castrati, and the part of Sesto was actually en travesti, a role meant for a woman to play a young man. I also learned that Cleopatra was the first Ptolemy to actually learn Egyptian, and she spoke six other languages besides.

The production presented is owned by the Metropolitan Opera, and six arias are cut out of it, as are some of the repeats. Otherwise it would be much longer.

The performance was sublime. It was easier to see the facial expressions of the singers from the orchestra, naturally, and David Daniels is a better actor than I thought. Bejun Mehta was wonderful too, after seeing him twice my opinion has solidified, and I will get a hold of one of his recordings soon.

Giulio Cesare

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.