HANDEL: Giulio Cesare

I saw it as performed during a four-performance run in the regular subscription season of Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston in February of 1987 (an exception to the usual practice of the company, where productions were conceived and directed by the late Caldwell). I recall being irritated at the time by the fact that librettos were NOT available for purchase, meaning that the almost four hours of the production were only intelligible as dumb show (even the best operatic diction in Italian is not particularly intelligible up in the balcony to native English speakers). This seemed at the time to be a deliberate decision by the director, perhaps trying to avoid the cognitive dissonance produced by the collision between the libretto and his conception of the opera, and it is worth noting that the DVD reviewed here includes neither a libretto, nor subtitles in Italian, reinforcing my impression of his motives in 1987. The performance recorded here is based on a production from the ThÈ‚tre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels.
Peter Sellars certainly has his partisans (those who awarded him the MacArthur Prize), but to my eyes and ears his work is sophomoric to the extreme. There are some worthy moments and performances here, but the overall impression it leaves is of an amateurishness appropriate to a high-school theatrical (and a bad one, at that). His contemporary Middle-East setting for the opera sabotages any seriousness that might be achieved by the work. There is little that one might describe as acting among the cast (the exception being the absolutely incomparable Lorraine Hunt, of whom more below). Jeffrey Gall’s singing in the title role is virtuosic, fully matching the composer’s demands, but his characterization of Caesar is far from the alpha male one might imagine. Cleopatra is fluently sung by the lyric soprano Susan Larson, with the character presented as a combination of the vamp Theda Bara (who played Cleopatra in a silent from 1917) with the porno queens of the seventies (particularly evident in the frequent close-ups in the DVD). Contralto Mary Westbrook-Geha produces a rich and expressive tone as Cornelia, whose husband Pompey’s head appears from a hat box (!) in the first act, but her wooden acting is far from that required of the role, and her girth makes it unbelievable that Achilla and Curio should both be attracted to her, particularly in the frumpy power suit she must wear. Drew Minter’s Tolomeo is imagined as a sort of teen punk with dyed hair (reminiscent of nothing more than Seth Green’s Scott Evil in the Austin Powers franchise, though Green gets much more mileage from his punk than does Minter). The absolute nadir here (as in the OCB production) is Minter’s aria sung in a minimal bathing suit. The estimable baritone James Maddalena manages to preserve his dignity as a general in military mufti.
The few redeeming moments of an almost unwatchable production belong to Lorraine Hunt, whose acting and singing is of a blistering intensity which shames the rest of the cast (compare, for example, her presence in the duet which ends Act 1, with that of Westbrook-Geha). Hunt would have been capable, had she not chosen a career as an opera singer, of exceptional work as a film actress, something that could not be said about her colleagues.
I would be remiss if I did not register the extremely variable quality of the audio. Not infrequently the singers go off-mike, which might be expected in a stage production, but in addition to this the audio levels go up and down unpredictably, so that it is impossible to simply set the volume at a comfortable level and relax. No, one must have the remote control always at hand to boost or lower the sound. I was also not much enamored of the simply functional contributions of the orchestra, playing modern instruments, seemingly at a constant mezzo-forte, and without subtlety or grace, sometimes threatening to overbalance the singers’ contributions.
Tom Moore

image_description=G. F. Handel: Giulio Cesare
product_title=G. F. Handel: Giulio Cesare
product_by=Jeffrey Gall (Giulio Cesare), Susan Larson (Cleopatra), Mary Westbrook-Geha (Cornelia), Lorraine Hunt (Sesto), James Maddalena (Achilla), Drew Minter (Tolomeo), Cheryl Cobb (Nirena), Herman Hildebrand (Curio), S‰chische Staatskapelle Dresden, Craig Smith (cond.). Directed by Peter Sellars.
product_id=Decca 071 4089 5 [2DVDs]