OPERA NEWS - Giulio Cesare
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Giulio Cesare

SALZBURG
Salzburger Pfingstfestspiele
5/27/12

In Review Salzburg Cesare hdl 812
Bartoli and Scholl, Cleopatra and Cesare at Salzburg
© Hans Jörg Michel 2012

Salzburger Pfingstfestspiele (Pentecost Festival), entitled "Cleopatra — In a Labyrinth of Eros and Power," is the first under the artistic direction of Cecilia Bartoli. A concert version of Massenet's opera Cléopâtre, plus concerts, films, readings and even a culinary event based on the Cleopatra theme were squeezed into the festival's four days. 

The main interest, however, centered around a new Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier production of Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto (seen May 27, the second performance of the run), with Bartoli and countertenor Andreas Scholl as Cleopatra and Cesare, in the so-called "Haus für Mozart." This production, with the same cast, was scheduled to be revived during the 2012 Salzburger Festspiele. 

Cesare's political intrigue and manifest eroticism could easily have been given heightened contemporary relevance, but directors Leiser and Caurier worked their updating of the opera with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The scenes dealing with sexuality were, for the most part, embarrassingly primitive, the nadir being Tolomeo's simulated masturbation while leering at a nude female picture in a magazine centerfold. Spontaneous booing greeted this and several other misjudgments. The stage design by Christian Fenouillat offered a hodgepodge of symbols relating to an imagined Egypt, including plastic crocodiles and oil rigs, and the modern-dress costumes — at times humorously tongue-in-cheek — by Agostino Cavalca added to the general incoherency of the physical production.

However, conductor Giovanni Antonini's intense leadership of Il Giardino Armonico, one of the world's foremost original-instrument ensembles, yielded an exceptional — and in many instances, unforgettable — musical representation of Handel's masterpiece in the congenial environment of the 1,500-seat theater. Il Giardino Armonico performed brilliantly, whether delivering instrumental fireworks, executing the kaleidoscope of variations required for Cesare's various and plentiful da capo sections or limning the emotional quality of the score's more tender and sad moments. Otherwise, the musical laurels belonged to Bartoli, whose vocal portrayal of Cleopatra was so astoundingly good that it literally took one's breath away. Her voice is undiminished in beauty, her coloratura remains — at least on the evidence of this evening — unparalleled, and her breath control gave the audience an endless stream of heavenly phrases. Above all, her depth of feeling was impressive beyond measure. I'm not sure I will ever again hear a "Piangerò la sorte mia" sung with such sublime perfection and emotional honesty. 

Are four countertenors too much of a good thing? Not when their music is sung with the diversity and skill of these four Cesare participants. Although Andreas Scholl's voice is not strikingly large, he sang the title role with astounding accuracy and, in his more reflective arias (particularly "Aure, deh per pietà spirate al petto mio"), with a transcendent sense of peace, almost making time stand still. In the role of Cleopatra's brother, Tolomeo, Christophe Dumaux was tempestuous — and offered a voice of bite and individuality. Audience favorite Philippe Jaroussky, not one bit less of a virtuoso than his colleagues but at times sounding a bit more steely than his fellow countertenors, was perfectly cast as the youthful Sesto. Veteran Jochen Kowalski's voice is not so glowing as it once was, but he made a vivid cameo out of Cleopatra's male servant, Nireno — here made into a female, "Nirena." 

Anne Sofie von Otter, not known as a Baroque specialist these days, nevertheless seemed quite at home with the style and made a most believable Cornelia. Ruben Drole, despite a rich-sounding bass voice, was not comfortable with the coloratura in Achilla's arias. The excellent Peter Kálmán's Curio rounded out the cast list. spacer

JEFFREY A. LEIPSIC

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