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Opera on DVD: Sellars' Giulio Cesare

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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)
Giulio Cesare in Egitto, premiered in London in 1724 with the celebrated alto castrato Senesino in the title role, remains Handel's best-loved and most often performed opera. Although a full performance runs somewhere around four hours, the music is generally gorgeous and imaginative, and occasionally brilliant and tear-inducing. The libretto, by Nicola Francesco Haym, is set during the first-century Roman occupation of Egypt.

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.

Other Productions:
available at Amazon
S. Connolly, A. Kirchschlager, OAE, W. Christie, Glyndebourne, directed by D. McVicars

available at Amazon
G. Pushee, Y. Kenny, Opera Australia, R. Hickox

available at Amazon
F. Oliver, E. de la Merced, E. Podleś, Barcelona Opera
How was Peter Sellars able to convince people to let him make this bizarre staging? More importantly, how can Sellars persuade singers to humiliate themselves in the way they did in this recording? As Cleopatra, Susan Larson wears a beaded Rastafarian wig and a revealing bikini (the impression of her slender figure is marred by unfortunate closeups of her face). At one point in Act I, Sellars has her wear a colored pool float toy around her neck and pretend to satisfy herself sexually with another float toy. She sings the famous aria, V'adoro, pupille, while seated on an enormous fish hook suspended over the stage, with an onstage chamber group accompanying her, all costumed as she is.

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.

Decca B0007253-09

Drew Minter as Tolomeo, Giulio Cesare, directed by Peter Sellars


Anonymous said...

Another idiotic review. You guys at ionarts have no concept or understanding of dramatic context. To prefer the McVicars fluffy nonsense about absolutely nothing to this production shows an absolutely borgeious, lowest-common-denominator approach to operatic and theatrical understanding. Pathetic...AND, get your facts straight. Peter first staged this for the Pepsico festival, not for La Monnaie...that was MUCH later.

Charles T. Downey said...

I think you mean "bourgeois." Thanks for the correction about when "Peter" first did the staging. Also, and I've said it before, if you are going to throw words like "idiotic" around, you should man up and sign your name. I have a suspicion about who you are and why you want to remain anonymous (and why you and "Peter" are on a first-name basis). That's pathetic. If you don't agree, then sign your name.