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Handel, Giulio Cesare, J. Gall, S. Larson, L. Hunt, D. Minter, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Craig Smith, directed by Peter Sellars (released November 14, 2006)
Peter Sellars created the original form of this production, Handel's Giulio Cesare reimagined as a modern confrontation between an American president and an Arab potentate, for the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. He was then able to refashion it for this studio video recording, with full staging, originally released in 1990. All of the familiar Sellars tics are here, seen again in his Glyndebourne Theodora a few years later, a U.S. President in business suit giving a press conference, modern politics intruding on a Baroque reworking of ancient history, and (quoting my Theodora review) the "high-school show choir hand movements." The worst example of the latter is at the end of Act II, where James Maddalena as Achilla gives a series of gestures that immediately call to mind a manager trying to tell his batter to bunt.
S. Connolly, A. Kirchschlager, OAE, W. Christie, Glyndebourne, directed by D. McVicars
G. Pushee, Y. Kenny, Opera Australia, R. Hickox
F. Oliver, E. de la Merced, E. Podleś, Barcelona Opera
Even worse, as Tolomeo, the opposing King of Egypt, countertenor Drew Minter is costumed as an 80s breakdancer, I think, complete with a patch of hair dyed red and walkman headphones. The sleeveless, striped sweater he wears in Act II is a particularly grotesque touch, but it is the blue speedo and suggestive gestures at the end of Act II for which one is most embarrassed on Minter's behalf. (Naturally, that scene floats immediately to the top of a YouTube search. Witness Minter mincing below.) Ironically, in his attempt to "update" the story of Julius Caesar, to help a modern audience connect with an ancient tale, Sellars caused his production to date in such an immediate way that it is much farther from universal than a traditional staging.
The absurdly bad staging aside, the musical quality is extremely good. The late, great Lorraine Hunt (not yet Lieberson) gives a convincingly male performance as Sesto Pompeo with all of her extraordinary intensity. Mary Westbrook-Geha has a luscious, glorious sound in the role of Cornelia, Pompeo's wife (see her gorgeous duet with Lorraine). Susan Larson is a consistently fine Cleopatra, although a fluttery vibrato sometimes mars the pure beauty of her voice. The orchestra is the redoubtable if not exactly Baroque-specialized Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted capably by Craig Smith.
The most attractive alternative to this re-release is the 2005 Glyndebourne production, released on DVD a year ago. The production there, by David McVicars, is also not very traditional, setting the story in pre-World War I times, with the British army occupying Egypt. However, the divine Sarah Connolly is a much preferable Giulio Cesare. Although a countertenor in the role can be a dramatic strength, Jeffrey Gall's performance on this DVD is just not memorable. (Compare Gall's Va tacito, for example, to the sound of Andreas Scholl in that aria.) Also, if anyone can stand up against Lorraine Hunt as Sesto, it would be Angelika Kirchschlager, and the young Daniele de Niese made quite an impression as Cleopatra in her first season at Glyndebourne (see her intensely seductive V'adoro, pupille via YouTube). Further recommending the Glyndebourne recording is the presence of William Christie, at the podium of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, presiding over a more idiomatic instrumental performance.
Drew Minter as Tolomeo, Giulio Cesare, directed by Peter Sellars