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HANDEL: Giulio Cesare

DVD Button Bartoli, von Otter; Scholl, Jaroussky, Dumaux; Il Gardino Armonico, Antonini. Production: Leiser, Caurier. Decca 0743856 (2 DVDs), 0743859 (Blu-ray), 248 mins., subtitled

Pale Caesar

Starry singing almost redeems an uninspired staging from Salzburg.

Recordings Giulio Cesare hdl 1116
Et tu, Andy? Bartoli and Scholl in Salzburg
© Hans Jörg Michel
Recordings Cesare Cover 1116
Critics Choice Button 1015

TO INAUGURATE HER  first season as artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, in 2012, the redoubtable Cecilia Bartoli tapped a stellar cast, an outstanding conductor and orchestra and the directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier to take on Handel’s 1724 opera. The result, captured on this DVD, is breathtaking music-making coupled with a production that is frivolous at best and, at worst, utterly incoherent vandalism.

Leiser and Caurier’s concept—a half-baked parable about Western imperialism and blood oil—opens like a bad imitation of Peter Sellars: AK-47-toting soldiers twirl and frolic in time to the overture’s martial pomp while herding cowering villagers. War, it seems, is just low-budget Busby Berkeley. From there it’s all slapdash execution and tacky mise en scène filled with faux Middle Eastern detritus. Timeless arias are compromised by stage business that critically undermines the drama. Anne Sofie von Otter’s Cornelia ends “Priva son d’ogni conforto” with her head in the mouth of a papier-mâché crocodile; Bartoli sings the entirety of “Piangerò la sorte mia” with a bag over her head. It hardly seems possible to sustain this inanity for the uncut opera’s four-plus-hours, yet Caurier and Leiser deliver a witless, uninspired slog.

Somehow, fantastic music-making emerges from this theatrical war zone. Bartoli, bless her, appears to have the time of her life. (When does she not?) Her instrument, supple and fierce, limns the role of Cleopatra with agility, precision and an emotional sincerity missing from the production at large. With a silvery filigree of sound that easily rides over the orchestra, she appears to take “Se pietà di me non senti” in a single breath.

Andreas Scholl, making a rare appearance in staged opera as Caesar, sounds fresh and youthful, and his coloratura contains none of the smudges or negotiated runs that might suggest his muscular countertenor is in anything but pristine shape. “Al lampo dell’armi” burns with youthful vigor and moral certitude, and his handling of slow recits is particularly fine. 

Philippe Jaroussky, dressed like a boarding-school brat, stops the show with “Cara speme.” With ornamentation that feels entirely in character, it’s one the best examples of Handelian singing to be heard since Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. And while Anne Sofie von Otter’s mezzo may be careworn, she sounds convincingly stately and patrician as Cornelia, with some moments of genuine loveliness. Yet her mannered reaction when Pompey’s realistic severed head is pulled from a box is deeply incongruous—akin to Brad Pitt clutching his pearls in Seven. “Son nata a lagrimar” packs all the wallop one could hope for. 

Poor Christophe Dumaux, his Tolomeo done up in cornrows and an alligator-skin jacket, is asked to take on the lion’s share of Regietheater excesses and hump everything in sight. His quick vibrato contrasting nicely with the other countertenors, Dumaux sounds fabulous and—like everything else in this show—looks ridiculous.

Giovanni Antonini leads period-instrument ensemble Il Giardino Armonico through a thrilling performance of Handel’s score. It would seem to take a miracle to surmount this execrable production; Antonini’s baton finds a way out of Egypt.  —Adam Wasserman 



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