Saturday, April 09, 2005

Julius Caesar

It was a long evening at the Zurich Opera. The opera started at 7:00 and I got back to the hotel around midnight. But despite this, it didn't seem long at all. It helped the flow of the drama to leave everything in. In this arrangement Sesto and his mother Cornelia become major characters in the drama and motivate the scene where Sesto kills Tolomeo to avenge his father Pompey.

Caesar arrives in Egypt quite by accident. He has tracked Pompey down to this spot and defeated him. The Roman army arrive on troop carriers looking like Carabinieri in their white Africa Corps uniforms, equipped with rockets and machine guns. They are easily distinguishable from the Egyptians in their blue and white striped outfits. There is a cute bit in the third act where Tolomeo in his harem takes off his blue and white striped trousers to reveal blue and white striped shorts underneath. Ha ha.

There was another green look in the Egyptian costumes, too, which was the color Cleopatra generally appeared in.

Cleopatra and Tolomeo are vying for Caesar's attention. Tolomeo tries sending Caesar Pompey's head in a box. Cleopatra tries sex. We know which one wins. In one of the arias Cleopatra proclaims "Tutto" (I can generally read the German supertitles--nowhere is free of them these days--but usually can't quite make it to the end) "A beautiful woman can accomplish anything." and proceeds to prove it.

In short, they accomplished the impossible: they made Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto dramatically interesting. Bravo. It all worked extremely well for me. Central to the drama is Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra. My only criticism here is that her costumes and manner varied so much that it resulted in no overall characterization. One minute she's a servant girl, the next she's the queen on a throne with a wonderful Madusa-like hat, then she's in rags. We know that Cleopatra was a woman of infinite variety, but maybe this is overdoing it a bit.

It flowed musically as well. Marc Minkowski, the conductor, paced everything wonderfully well. There was one oddity: the da capo sections of the arias were often sung very softly, so softly that you could hardly hear them. I don't think this is a traditional performance practice, I am only aware of the practice of increased ornamentation in the da capo sections, so it must have been the conductor's idea.

Cecilia was fabulous, especially in the third act. "Piangero" was wonderful. She is in her prime and this is a perfect role for her.

While I was listening to Caesar's rage aria toward the end, the thought passed my mind -- what if this actually sounded the way it was intended to sound, not like Marilyn Horne however fabulously she may have sung, not like a falsetto man, but like something unimaginable, a male soprano? The only explanation for the existence of castrati that I can think of is that it must have sounded truly spectacular.

Our countertenors did the best they could. They managed not to be too annoying. Franco Fagioli as Giulio Cesare slips out of his falsetto on the low notes, but is otherwise excellent in this Fach. He is tall and heroic looking, and amazingly, does not wear a beard. He could work on his heroic bearing.

Other people worth mentioning are Anna Bonitatibus, a small woman with a penetrating voice in the role of Sesto, and Charlotte Hellekant as Cornelia.

I am writing in internet points around Europe, and it's taking a while to finish this. Today I am in Florence. This is starting to sound too much like regular reviewing.

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