Review: Met's Giulio Cesare Laces Politics with Bollywood Dance

Subtleties of McVicar Production Sometimes Lost in Auditorium

Friday, April 05, 2013 - 02:17 PM

Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra and Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo in a scene from Handel's 'Giulio Cesare.' Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra and Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo in 'Giulio Cesare.' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Reaching the end of Giulio Cesare at its Metropolitan Opera opening night wasn't just a matter of taking in four-plus hours of Handel’s greatest arias, but navigating stories within stories, whether in the wide-ranging cultural references of David McVicar’s 2005 Glyndeboune production or one’s own history with individual singers, starting with the star Natalie Dessay, who seemed to be so ill-suited to Cleopatra that many speculated she would cancel. Instead, she triumphed.

The opera wasn’t delivered strictly on its own terms. Whether or not any given Met subscriber is ready for a Giulio Cesare, the production rarely sits still in any respect. Rarely do "da capo" arias seem to retrace their musical steps: Repetition was addressed with liberal use of vocal ornaments in ways that were musically and dramatically apt. Theatrically, the Caesar and Cleopatra story became a study in political and sexual power as a weaker, ancient culture strikes an alliance with a younger, vigorous one — told in a non-chronological fantasy of visual references partly from the Victorian-era British domination of India and Suez. A diorama of sorts showed the ocean alternately filled with clipper ships, zeppelins, 20th century battle ships and, finally, the Titanic.

Some arias were choreographed Bollywood style, but fashioned to Handel’s rhythms in ways that seemed jokey, though the audience responded to the showmanship. And that was part of the point: Politics as theater. Often, a stage would open up into another stage and yet another – delineated in Act II by a series of heavy curtains, all in vivid, iridescent colors characteristic of India, but in a stage set structure from Handel’s 18th century. Cleopatra was costumed as an all-purpose seductress at times, though when in disguise, she was the silent film star Louise Brooks.

Acting subtleties (McVicar’s hallmark) didn’t project so well in such a large auditorium. Indeed, one could question the wisdom of presenting this opera at the Met. Even with Handel specialist Harry Bicket in the pit, the modern-instrument orchestra only minimally adopted 18th-century manners. Pacing wasn’t great, sometimes lacking a sense of Handel’s longer arcs created from a huge variety of arias and recitatives.

The Met’s expanse can be hard on Handelian singers. As Caesar, David Daniels sounded underpowered except in isolated areas of his range where he blasted notes as if compensating for what came before. His coloratura was approximate. Unlike Bach, whose underlying ideas carry singers when all the notes aren’t there, compromised Handel characters can seem like incomplete mosaics.

Dessay, in contrast, sang with the kind of rich tone, firm legato line and vibrato control that I haven’t heard from her in years. (Interestingly, Ian Bostridge has had a near-identical vocal transformation recently. Do they have the same voice doctor?) She was hardly the most regal or sexual Cleopatra (neither was Kathleen Battle when the Met first presented the opera in 1988) and played some scenes for laughs. In important emotional moments, though, emotional depths were there. Let's not forget the revisionist views of Cleopatra are more about brains than beauty.

Among important secondary characters, Patricia Barden (as the grieving widow Cornelia) left some of the opera’s best music feeling a tad dull. As fiery Sesto, Alice Coote was one of the best voices onstage, perhaps too rich for Handel’s intricacies but having such charisma you wanted her to sing more. The cast’s other countertenors, Christophe Dumaux (Ptolemy) and Rachid Ben Abdeslam (Nirenus), were remarkably imposing.

Photo: Patricia Bardon as Cornelia and Alice Coote as Sesto in Handel's 'Giulio Cesare.' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Update: This review previously stated that the Met’s Giulio Cesare was virtually uncut, based on information supplied by the company. After further inquiries, the company provided a correction that, in fact, two arias were cut.

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Comments [5]

Paula Goldman from Bedford, MA

I personally find it annoying for so many male voices sound like low register females. Did Handel really want that tone?

However Dessay was splendid.

We love the Metropolitan Opera and subscribe to every performance on HD.

Apr. 28 2013 05:58 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

No joking i meant GIULIO CESARE, not Giukio Cesare.

Apr. 27 2013 03:41 PM
CoolObserver from Manhattan, New York

I can only report what I saw, what I heard and what I was told. Last night we attended the Met’s Giulio Cesare. Moments before the curtain rose, Peter Gelb came out to say Natalie Dessay was indisposed to a great audience groan, but this was reprieved by his “good news” that Danielle De Niese, who originated the role and happened to be in town, would cover for the evening.
On either side of the stage were two 8 to 10 foot speakers. During the first act in our usual front orchestra left seating area one could distinctly hear music coming from the speakers. We sit in this area all the time, so I know when sound is different. At the first intermission I went down the aisle to the orchestra pit and spoke with three musicians. I said “Is the music being amplified?” They looked shocked and immediately asked if “if sounded too loud… could I hear the amplification?” Yes, I said I could. But then I asked, “Why was it being amplified?” “Because it is a big house and the orchestra for this is small,” I was told. “The stage is much deeper than Glyndebourne, and it is harder to hear the singers from the far back.” They went on “This can be done very subtly these days, and the singers wear tiny microphones. But you shouldn’t be able to tell.” I said I had heard Giulio Cesare two or three times in the past at the Met and never heard amplification or thought it was needed.
When I told several audience members about this encounter --two of them went to the orchestra pit the next intermission themselves to question this. The story changed. They were told, “Yes, there is amplification, but it is only for the singers backstage.” However, the speakers I was hearing were out front of the proscenium and pointed into the hall at the audience. If indeed something needed to be done to enhance the orchestra's sound might it not simply do to raise the orchestra higher in the pit?
I also wondered why Guilio Cesare at the Met AGAIN? Does the Met think this is Handel's ONLY opera or one of the very few baroque operas that are acceptable? Maybe the Met should consult Les Arts Florissants for some new alternatives for future consideration either in baroque composers or even just other Handel options (besides Rodalinda).

Apr. 13 2013 12:45 PM
CoolObserver from Manhattan, New York

I happened to be sitting next to someone who announced that she was a trustee and is listed as Managing Director, which I think is a title bestowed on extra big contributors (like the former Agnes Varis). Anyway, when I asked her why amplification was being used she said she didn’t know, and her husband/companion suggested it might have something to do with the HD. Then the Managing Director tartly said, if it bothered me or I didn’t like it I should “change my seat, that is easy to do!”
I found the second act to be less obviously amplified, but by the third act others around me heard it distinctly. I wondered if this was done opening night as you did not mention it, and if it portends a new Met policy under Mr. Gelb.
As for the Giulio Cesare production, the skeleton set of telescoping proscenium arches with multi-swaged draperies served fine and was very reminiscent, if less artistically successful, than last summer’s brilliant Armide at Glimmerglass (which also had much finer dancing!). What ultimately spoiled the Met evening for me was the endless camp. A little camp goes a long way, especially when so much was emphasizing and doting on the “fey”ness and “cute” side of things. Those repetitive jokes get stale very quickly.
Subtlety is not Met style these days; we are given broad Broadway overstatement as if the audience would not get the point otherwise. One could get over flapper dresses many inches too short, but in the duration of an Egyptian campaign we go from 18th and 19th century sailing ships to 20th century battleships and air balloons, as well as the inexplicable switch of Giulio and Cleo to stilted 18th century dress for the finale! Such blatant inconsistencies shatter the authenticity of a vision (as in wink, wink, isn’t this cute), and makes one feel either the designer and director are ignorant or careless in throwing anything at you that might get a hee-haw. It is not believing in your material or even your chosen approach enough to treat it at least halfway seriously and consistently. Another “never again” production despite excellent, excellent signing on the whole (once David had warmed up).

Apr. 13 2013 12:35 PM
David from Flushing

I think we could save reviewers some trouble if the following was engraved on the front of the Met:

"The previous production as much nicer."

Apr. 06 2013 08:09 AM

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