Dessay, Leonard, Abrahamyan; Zazzo, Dumaux; Chorus of Opéra National de Paris, Le Concert d'Astrée, Haïm.
Production: Pelly. Virgin Classics 0709399 9 (2 DVDs), 217 mins., subtitled
Giulio Cesare is the most popular of Handel's forty operas today, not because the music is better than all the rest (he composed many scores as fine), but because the action, besides concerning itself with persons familiar to modern audiences, is exceptionally clear. The characters undergo their many transformations before our eyes and ears and for comprehensible reasons — Cesare from conqueror to lover; Cleopatra from sex kitten to woman of feeling and courage; Sesto from timid youth to vengeful Roman warrior. Tolomeo and Achilla, treacherous and lecherous, are not transformed, and death is their logical reward. The inevitable happy ending of opera seria has been earned, musically and dramatically, and the ultimate duet is as triumphant as it is sensuous.
Laurent Pelly's production for Opéra National de Paris, recorded in February 2011 at the Palais Garnier, is set in a museum attic. Workmen move the antiquities about, unimpressed when the ancient figures come to life. Two empty vitrines become thrones; another turns into a harem couch. Cleopatra dances on a recumbent colossal pharaoh, and Pompey's head comes from a statue. The costumes draw from at least four styles and periods — Egyptian, Roman, Baroque and backstage. The jokes are cute but do not (as in the Sellars and McVicar productions) insist on equal focus with the performances — though this production may come to be remembered for the large, bare (presumably false) left breast with which Natalie Dessay's Cleopatra casually seduces the Roman legions.
Dessay maintains her vocal line impressively while dashing frantically about the set, and if she is more fun in the fast or flirty arias than moving in the introspective ones, she proves equal to the range and tempos of the part. Her Cesare, Lawrence Zazzo, has the heroic dignity and vocal polish for his imperial role. He has a fine, expressive, masculine alto, and his breath control never falters, even when he is singing rapid divisions while singlehandedly combating — and slaying — a platoon of hostile stagehands.
Isabel Leonard sings the boyish Sesto with cool beauty and portrays the proper adolescent confusion — especially when Varduhi Abrahamyan's Cornelia goes hysterically mad before her son's eyes. Cornelia is usually the most lugubrious of roles, ever bewailing something or other, unless (as here) one restores the harem scene with Sesto's assassination of Tolomeo and Cornelia's joyous "Non ha più che temere." After her able but not terribly distinctive way with arias of lamentation, it is good to hear Abrahamyan cutting loose in this piece, though the observer may feel, as Sesto plainly does, that she is getting a bit carried away in her ecstasies.
Christophe Dumaux does not possess a very attractive countertenor, but Tolomeo is not an attractive guy. Dumaux displays his bravado and melodramatic villainy with both dramatic and vocal athleticism. Nathan Berg performs more of Achilla's arias than we usually hear, with a dark but gravelly tone. The perennial confusion of the confidante Nireno/Nirena is handled neatly: male alto Dominique Visse plays the part as a cross-dressing eunuch. His lack of vocal sensuality suits this personality.
As a document of the current state of Handel singing, this is not an overwhelming occasion. All the singers can put over a Handelian line and bound about the stage while doing so, and they know how to vary a da capo with suitable ornaments, but not one of them has a passable trill.
Emmanuelle Haïm's Concert d'Astrée has an incisive, almost harsh downbeat and valveless brasses to remind us that we are not in the era of pretty manners — serious weltpolitik is at stake! The small size of the group enables the players to underline the score's variety of texture, from the luxuriousness of "V'adoro, pupille" to the stark anguish of "Son nata a lagrimar," enhancing the drama in ways that the thickened orchestration of a larger band could not.
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