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12 April, 2013

"Veni, vidi, vici". Dramatic Julius Caesar at the Met.

Handel - Julius Caesar. Metropolitan Opera Gala Thurs 4th April 7.30pm - 12.15am

Dear Colleagues,

This opera production by David McVicar is a right romp from the Old Country. I sat next to two Englishmen who said it was essentially the same at its Glyndebourne progenitor. It seemed to arise from a fantasy realm using a recipe of ‘when in doubt, add more’ … and they did. There were acrobatics, aeronautics, on-stage musicians, historic ships, maps and even zeppelins aloft. Conductor Harry Bicket entered the pit from the left - is this becoming a habit started by Lorin Maazel? He certainly knew what he was doing with Handel’s melodies and most important, his pregnant pauses therein.

Set as a stage within a stage in fact there were four discrete proscenium arches, each with its own side-pull curtain, the front and main one being pale cream then emerald, papal purple and ochre. Behind were four huge silvery-grey horizontal rollers which mimicked the ocean and which ground on for the entire performance apart from a couple of palace scenes when other flats obscured their rolling motion.

It must be said that Giulio Cesare in Egitto, to give it its full title, is operatic archaeology - reflecting both the stage of the art form and the long hours idle rich Londoners had in 1724. Apart from two choruses and two or three duets the rest of the near 5 hour work is a long string of discrete ‘da capo’ arias. Yet the four or five immortal melodies and much other beautiful music has kept this opera alive despite the many other styles which have developed meantime.

The evening went without a hitch despite the myriad of things which can and do go wrong in opera - Das Rheingold opening two days later had an entire scene scotched by a seized 50 ton ‘machine’.

The brass section of the orchestra appeared to tire toward the end of the long evening, yet the energy on stage continued to the end with a magnificent ‘Piangero’ from Natalie Dessay. She took an unusual but glorious “V’adoro … (pause), pupillae” in act 2 as she emerged from a body bag or ‘wrap’). She was better cast in this role than as Violetta last year.

All the deceased members of the cast, Pompey excepted, were restored to life to sing the big final chorus with champagne served by the Bollywood dancers and their assistants.

David Daniels is still one of the few counter-tenors whose voice I can warm to … and we had two others in this casting. The on-stage violin duel with Caesar is a classic and David Chan as concertmaster is a showman as well as a musician. Amongst a fine cast for my taste the stars were Alison Coote as Sesto and Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Sesto’s mother (and the wife of Pompey whose severed head is shockingly presented to Caesar in the first minutes of the action). Coote and Bardon each had all it takes to do Handel justice - and they also had two of the charming duets.

Guido Loconsolo has a rich baritone voice and as Achillas did some very elegant singing with convincing drama. We also heard alto Rachid Ben Abdeslam sing and dance a hilarious “Chi perde un momento” (‘Don’t waste a moment’). He must be one of a very few serious singers from North Africa (Morocco). Christophe Dumaux made himself a very unlovable and effete Ptolemy XIII who was initially belittled by his sister, Cleopatra VII, then to go from gaff to gaff in his unprepossessing descent to disaster.

Somehow I come down on the side of traditional voices, especially mezzo-sopranos and baritones as being the backbone of any opera. We will never know what a castrato really sounded like (despite some imperfect recordings of the last Vatican victim) thus we cannot glean the true voice balance that Handel expected. We can be sure that some of these emasculated men had phenomenal voices, for power and beauty, as many adjectives were used by contemporary critics. Likewise, the actual sound of Nellie Melba and others of her era may never be known for sure, especially when most of the imperfect ‘golden age’ recordings were made after their prime. It is a shame that Joan Sutherland did not make some 78rpm recordings using historical equipment for that reason. Or has this been tried?

The gala Met audience for the Handel was appreciative although a small number did not last the distance. And it was not quite a full house. I had seen the dress rehearsal two days before thanks to a generous Met donor … yet at no point on opening night did I consider it a chore, nor did I nod off.

This action-packed production has so many elements of fantasy, gore, sex, homo-erotica and simple beauty that it would be worth a visit if you were deaf. There were images of cowboys, gangsters, rifle shooters, archers and even machine-gunning. Ships were from ancient felucca to modern naval, ocean liners and even a series resembling the Mayflower era. An enlarged period map of Alexandria was used as one of the backdrops, enumerating depths in fathoms, reefs, rocks, shallows, famous lighthouse, library and catacombs. The cinema HD broadcast should be a sell-out.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

More elsewhere on the Met Traviata, Otello, Don Carlo, Faust and Das Rheingold in due course. On my return to Sydney Carmen on the Harbour was a splendid spectacle on a perfect but cool autumn evening on Thursday 11th April. With two prominent casts and other nights with less than ideal weather, it is not possible to pass judgment on this risky venture by a troubled national ‘opera’ company. I was sorry to miss Milijana Nikolic and Adam Diegel, but happy to hear Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham in the title role. Yet amplified opera ain’t opera in my book – but it is a marvellous side-show, when it works.

Single Caesar clip:

Long Caesar clip from UK:

Opera blog: