George Frideric Handel • Giulio Cesare in EgittoFour countertenors on stage at a time exude a fascination all of their own. Especially when those countertenors are Andreas Scholl, Christophe Dumaux, Jochen Kowalski, and Philippe Jaroussky—in that formation to be heard in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto at the Salzburg Festival.
You could have put eight countertenors on stage, alas, and it wouldn’t have begun to salvage this tacky and juvenile production by the Zurich-regulars Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. To be fair though, the lion share of the dubious credit for the on-stage shenanigans likely belongs to Zurich-regular Cecilia Bartoli, a frequent Leiser & Caurier collaborator who undoubtedly had a say in how her stage appearances were orchestrated.
The only thing more disturbing than the cringe-worthy jokes was that the audience reaction: The more vapid the gag, the more heartily the laughs. In the second of the summer performances (the opera had already premiered during the Bartoli-run, Cleopatra-themed Salzburg Whitsun festival), only one self-respecting patron in the upper circle had the heart to boo during the most fearfully vulgar scene: As part of the entertainment act of Cleopatra-in-disguise in the second act, Bartoli mirthfully straps herself to a rocket and soars off stage. The whole thing looked like Miss Piggy imitating Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” video, calculated to elicit the cheap laughs it got; a vision into Kermit’s most cruel nightmares.
With its heavy handed Personenregie and ham-handed jokes, the production was very early 90s; a perfectly preserved specimen, as if time had stood still. Wallowing in tastelessness and narcissism, it never made up its mind whether it wanted to be kitsch and horseplay with plastic crocodiles and assorted rubber raptors or a bit of social criticism. Any attempt at the latter didn’t, unfortunately, amount to more than lazy visual references to the upheaval in Northern African states over the last few years. Even the ballet of soldiers seemed confused whether they wanted to engage in scary make-believe fighting and shooting, or whether just to do jocund ballet moves with and without dummies.
Amid this, Bartoli’s Cleopatra—unintentionally looking like an ageing bordello queen in crotch-high leather boots—doles out the camp as liberally as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Seeing her imitate Uma’s Pulp Fiction dance hurts, and so does watching the slap-stick flowers wilt and smoke as poisoned wine is poured out over them: Knee-slappers, for those who find Benny Hill too sophisticated. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the political statements are just as trite and prop-heavy. Economic colonialism, attaché cases with EU flags, oil-rigs, Sesto-as-suicide-bomber, laser guided bombs being called in, and another swift ballet of the desecration of the corpses… it’s an oh-so-clever, unremitting string of banalities and visual platitudes. Heterosexuality is portrayed only in the crudest, crassest terms, reduced to crotch-grabbing and pelvis-pounding. Tolomeo’s shtick is that he constantly kicks things… preferably boxes. Because, you see, he’s an angry young man, and that’s an angry young man’s only way to express anger, apparently.
When the soldiers—Mission Accomplished, the oil flowing again, Cesar-as-Brussels reigning safely—finally strip their uniforms, they turn out to be ushers of the Salzburg Festival. The singers gather for a frivolous new years’ eve party ‘round the grand piano, and even the deceased characters mingle again. Far away in the background, the fighting continues, and in the very end the cleared stage of the House for Mozart reveals a view, through the open stage doors, to the Toscanini Courtyard, where a real Austrian light tank pops its 105 mm gun in, aiming at the audience. A coup de théâtre, no doubt, but to what avail? If the preceding five hours hadn’t been an endurance test of un-ironic daftness and infantilism, this could possibly be taking as a scathing comment on how war goes on as we turn back to our daily plaisirs. But as is, it only caps the stupidity with one last martial gag. You would think the whole thing insults the intelligent opera-goer… but judging by the reception, that’s too small a minority group to matter.
What’s there to take away then, other the insight to give the firm of Leiser, Caurier, & Bartoli a wide berth in the future? In a word: Come for the show, stay for the music: The cast would have been sensational twenty years ago and it’s still very respectable recycling. Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini provided moments of great loveliness, and they tried hard to bring some dramatic life into those endless repeats of the strophic arias. They weren’t as lively as Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens de Louvre in Tamerlano a fortnight earlier, but they made good on the promise of the music.
Anne Sofie von Otter’s Cornelia is made to look like a doddering senior citizen and seeing Tolomeo woo her wildly feels uncomfortably like a case of Gerontophilia. She punched above her weight most of the time, but her great lament was so beautifully sung and so tastefully played, that the saddest thing about it might have been that Handel could not hear it himself, to hear in what high regard his music is held, still 288 years after its first performance.
Feel about Bartoli how you may, at 46 she’s still in shipshape, vocally—ever unique and compelling. Dramatically, Andreas Scholl was saved from the worst by his innate reticence. His Cesare’s lament (lots of lamenting in this opera!) was sung with a velvety, veiled voice, very controlled, and given the necessary gentle-enough accompaniment that allows Scholl to be heard in the house. Agility is not his strength, but Jochen Kowalski in his drag role as Nirena delighted with his strong and comfortable alto. Christophe Dumaux, torpedoed by the shtick he had to perform, brought his virile voice to bear extremely well. Jarousky’s youthfully strong and bright voiced performance was most magnificent, even as he tried to act earnestly through the pitiful role he is given, which involved endless smearing of things— alternating blood and tar—on him and others. Ruben Drole, an ensemble member of the Zurich Opera, and Peter Kálmán a former ensemble member of the Zurich Opera rounded the Zurich-in-Salzburg production out blamelessly with their Achilla and Curio, respectively.
Speaking of Zurich, one wonders: Why does Salzburg have to rummage through the theatrical costume stock of the Zurich opera for almost everything it did in this first year under former Zurich Opera Indendant Alexander Pereira? Bringing one’s Rolodex from the past job is understandable. But simply moving the whole operation, singers, directors, administrators, and PR personnel some 200 miles east seems unsatisfactory, even for a first year of operations.