Scholl, Andreas


CesareGeorge Frideric Handel - Giulio Cesare in Egitto

Salzburg Festival, Haus für Mozart, 2012 | Giovanni Antonini, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Andreas Scholl, Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sofie von Otter, Philippe Jaroussky, Christophe Dumaux, Jochen Kowalski, Ruben Drole, Peter Kálmán | ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming, 27 May 2012

The question of how to stage a Baroque opera, rather different in form from the more familiar narrative drama form established in 19th century opera, has been a tricky issue that has had to be addressed in order to bring these works back into the modern opera repertoire. How do you make a rather long-winded and out-dated style of opera appealing enough to engage an audience through all the ornate embellishments and opera seria conventions? It helps of course if the score is by Handel, and it helps if the opera in question has a subject as juicy as Julius Cesar’s campaign in Egypt and his romantic encounter with Cleopatra, with some beautiful, memorable arias, and a considerable amount of profuse romantic declarations and rejections, and large amounts of political plotting and scheming. Despite being the most popularly staged Handel opera, the work - four hours long and featuring no less than four principal countertenor/castrato roles - does present considerable challenges in the staging of these event, since most of the action is alluded to only in the brief recitative and usually takes place off-stage. An “authentic” period treatment for the four hours of Giulio Cesare in Egitto could be a bit of a slog for an audience without some visual entertainment, and it seems to be with that principle in mind that Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Handel’s 1724 opera for the 2012 Salzburg Pentecost Festival (newly under the directorship of Cecilia Bartoli) is certainly nothing like a period treatment.

Let’s just take a couple of early examples to see how they approach the long drawn-out expressions of deep emotions that establishes the characters and their relation to each other in the critical First Act. Cornelia, aghast at the murder of her husband Pompeo, his head cut off and presented to Cesare by Tolomeo in a misguided attempt to gain favour and the rule of Egypt, sings of her loss in an exquisite lament (‘Priva son d’ogni conforto’) that doesn’t actually require her to do anything dramatically, just emote the pain. Sung eloquently and movingly by Anne Sofie von Otter, the sentiments don’t really need any further elaboration, but Leiser and Caurier choose to show the depths of Cornelia’s despair by having her place her head in the jaws of a crudely manufactured giant rubber crocodile. Or - how should one stage the aria ‘L’empio, sleale, indegno’, where Tolomeo vents his anger at Cesare, while standing alone on the stage? Well, Leiser and Caurier have him tear apart a foam dummy of Cesar (one that bizarrely has arrived earlier on the top of the limousine bearing the arrival of the Roman Emperor), pulling bloody innards out of the stomach and biting into them.

Evidently such scenes clearly bear no relation to naturalism, never mind tradition, and as the early booing from the audience at Tolomeo’s tantrum here demonstrates, it’s clearly not for everyone. Whether it’s to your taste or not, in both cases, it can’t be denied that the visual expression of those scenes don’t really do anything more than simply match the extravagance and depth of feelings as they are expressed by both characters through the excessively ornate terms of the da capo aria. The nature of the convention and its lack of adherence to any kind of naturalism in dramatic situations is even played upon in Act II, when Cesare’s General, Curio - dressed in modern army combat gear - looks on in a frustrated manner as he tries to get the Emperor into a bulletproof vest and away from a group of assassins approaching them in Cleopatra’s palace, only for Cesare to insist on returning to the front of the stage to finish the long repetitions of his da capo aria. It’s clever, it’s knowing, it’s aware of the conventions and working within them, but most importantly, Leiser and Caurier’s production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto is never boring.

Updating the involvement of a major Western power in the turmoil of the Middle-East to a modern setting is however clearly always going to generate some amount of controversy and to their credit, Leiser and Caurier don’t shy away from scenes that, in some cases, almost seem designed to shock and provoke a reaction. Little of that however relates to any actual commentary on real-life modern-day situations other than in the broadest of terms, but there are certainly recognisable features of present-day Egypt, the wider Middle-East conflict and recent Arab Spring rebel uprisings, with the stage bearing all the signs of a desert war, littered with burning tanks and, um, giant lizards. As head of the invading foreign power, Cesare here is keen to strike up a deal with the new regime, installing Tolomeo as the new puppet ruler in an arrangement that will be beneficial to Rome for the setting up of oil wells in the region. In this context, having seen his father killed by this cruel regime, Sesto becomes a terrorist and straps a bomb around his waist for a suicide attack, assisted by his grieving mother. Bombs rain down in a shock-and-awe battle towards the end of the conflict, as the rebels take on the government forces. Without having to make any overt commentary on the Middle East, it’s a scenario that a modern audience would be able to relate to - certainly more than Cesar’s campaign in Egypt in 48 BC - but what is even more surprising is how well it actually works hand-in-hand with the themes, if not the actual historical events, recounted in Handel’s work.

The directors however - depending on your view - could be seen as pushing things a little too far into parody. Certainly the abuse of power, the sexual improprieties and the mistreatment of women that go along with it are all part and parcel of the exercise of political authority and ambition - as is Cleopatra’s use of seduction to try to gain power herself - but the manner in which these scenes are depicted seems to be fully considered according to the nature of the characters and not merely put in to shock the audience. For Cleopatra’s part, it all seems to be done with a sense of fun, and Cecilia Bartoli (well used to working with this directing team) throws herself bravely into the role, and not just in singing terms - which you would expect anyway. She seems to enjoy playing the part of this sexy temptress, vamping it up in a leather outfit that emphasises her ample bosom, or as a dancing girl with feather fans, even dancing like an Egyptian while wearing a wig of the Queen’s famous bob hairstyle. At one point in Act II she even rides a rocket bomb (as Cupid’s dart) into the sky, which earns huge applause, although her stunning delivery of the aria might have had something to do with that. Her character’s slip into lamentations in the second half of the work however is handled without any such fuss or spectacle (although she also feels like sacrificing herself to the rubber crocodile at one point). So too, the enslavement of Cornelia and the attempts to use her as a bargaining tool for sale on is treated with great delicacy, but the “villains” less so, Tolomeo shown jerking off to a porn mag while singing “Belle dee di questo core”.

More than simply setting out to shock or upset, the impression given is that, in their attempt to prove that opera seria doesn’t have to be just a long series of tedious arias with short sections of recitative to set them up, the directors have perhaps just gone too far in the other direction and thrown in far too many ideas that don’t always work. This Giulio Cesare in Egitto is just overflowing with ideas and there’s almost too much to take in. But one thing for sure is that it’s never, ever boring, and in a four-hour Handel opera, that’s quite an achievement. Just as importantly, it doesn’t detract from what it the most important element of the work, and that is its expression through the singing. Bartoli, as noted above, is just outstanding, fully entering into the role and singing it beautifully, powerfully and with genuine feeling and understanding for the character of Cleopatra. Andreas Scholl’s delicate countertenor also fully embodies the character of Cesare, the singing impassioned, the da capo coloratura both expressive and impressive. The real key to the success of this production however lies in the equal attention given to the superb casting and performances of the other roles, particularly Anne Sofie von Otter’s Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky’s Sesto. Their expressions of deep anguish underpin the seriousness of drama and its conviction, and they are both outstanding in individual arias, but particularly impressive in their ‘Son nata a lagrimar’ duet. Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo, Jochen Kowalski as Nireno, Peter Kálmán as Curio and Ruben Drole as Achilla also give fine performances that ensure that there are no weak elements here as far as the singing is concerned.

Giulio Cesare in Egitto was recorded on 27th May 2012 and broadcast live by the French/German television channel ARTE. It is currently available to view in its entirety for free on their ARTE Live Web site.

RodelindaGeorge Frideric Handel - Rodelinda

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Harry Bicket, Stephen Wadsworth, Renée Fleming, Stephanie Blythe, Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Shenyang | The Met: Live in HD - December 3, 2011

The challenges of staging a Baroque opera for a modern audience are difficult enough through trying to find a way to make the rather static nature of the drama more interesting to watch and bring the archaic musical conventions of the opera seria alive. By nature a more intimate drama, the difficulties of reaching out to a large audience in a major opera house, or even indeed to a worldwide audience watching live through a HD broadcast link must be even greater. With their production of Handel’s Rodelinda, the Met certainly made every effort to keep the drama and action moving through an inventive, appropriate, period set with direction by Stephen Wadsworth, and consideration was clearly given to the casting of strong singers to project the deeper emotional drama of the piece, but there was the feeling that the Met really isn’t the right venue for such works and the full impact of one of Handel’s most lyrical and dramatic operas was never fully achieved here.

Although it has a reputation for having a complex plot, the dramatic action of Rodelinda is actually not all that difficult to follow, and on the surface at least, it’s actually one of Handel’s least complicated situations. Updated in this production to Milan in the early 18th century, the King of Lombardy, Bertarido, has been deposed by Grimoaldo, and is believed dead. Grimoaldo, had been planning to marry Bertarido’s sister Eduige in order to gain a legitimate claim to the throne, but resolves instead to marry the queen, Rodelinda. Grimoaldo’s henchman, Garibaldo, puts pressure on Rodelinda, threatening the life of her son, and she reluctantly is forced to accept Grimoaldo’s proposal. Her husband Bertarido however is not dead, but has been smuggled into the city by his friend Unulfo, who still remains loyal. Overhearing Rodelinda’s agreement to marry Grimoaldo, Bertarido is forced to reveal that he is still alive, a selfless act that causes Grimoaldo to reconsider his intentions. The remainder of the storyline falls into conventional lines of resolution of both the political and, more importantly, the romantic situations that have become entangled.

Rodelinda
Even if it is fairly conventional in this respect, there is however still rather more dramatic action than you usually find in a Handel opera, with plenty of confrontations between opposing rivals and reunions between lost lovers. The real drama however goes on beneath the surface, the inner turmoil expressed, as it it often is in Baroque opera, through long repetitive da capo arias. Rodelinda is one of Handel’s most beautiful works for how these inner conflicts are expressed in the singing and in the music. It’s more than the usual, “I’ve been betrayed, how can I live with the shame?” type of situations, and the resolution is more than the person in the wrong coming to their senses and bringing about an honourable resolution that restores the political and romantic order of things. Superficially, it has to be admitted, Rodelinda does fit this template to a large extent, but it’s how those characters grapple with those difficult decisions, and it’s how those sentiments are expressed in the singing voice in some lovely poetic arias, through the achingly tender musical accompaniment, and in how the characters evolve over the course of the three acts, that the opera excels as one of Handel’s finest, most involving and most beautiful works.

From interval discussions behind the scenes during the HD-Live broadcast, it’s clear that the singers and conductor Harry Bicket are fully aware of the qualities of the work, of how those dramatic situations need to be presented, and how those deeper emotional conflicts and character development can be expressed in the improvisational coloratura of the seemingly rigid form of the da capo aria. Somehow, however, this never managed to be convincingly conveyed in either the dramatic staging, the singing or the performance of the orchestra. The Met’s Rodelinda treated Handel’s opera with skill, respect and consideration, but it just never felt like a Handel opera. As good as each of the singers is individually, the casting here was perhaps not the most appropriate for this particular opera. Personally, I’m not usually of the opinion that there’s only one way to present a work or that certain singers should only stick to a certain repertoire for which they are best suited – I like seeing a singer stretch their capabilities as much as I enjoy seeing a familiar opera transformed by a new interpretation – but few if any of the Met’s stellar cast seemed entirely comfortable in their roles here.

Rodelinda

Renée Fleming championed this work and helped get it performed at the Met when it was first produced in 2004, and she is a terrific dramatic singer who brings an attentive intelligence to the role of Rodelinda. Fleming demonstrated that she is capable of meeting the extraordinary vocal challenges in her own way, but – even though she is experienced in this type of opera – perhaps the demands of the Baroque technique got in the way in this performance, because she never succeeded in bringing the Queen’s drama to life. Neither did Stephanie Blythe fit well in the role of Eduige. She sang more than adequately, but you just didn’t get a sense that she was feeling her character’s predicament. Bertarido, with his deep reserves of love, honour and bravery, is perhaps the most interesting character in the opera, but Andreas Scholl’s light countertenor was too small for the Met production and didn’t always bring enough underlying steeliness of his character’s core. Iestyn Davies’ countertenor Unulfo however fared much better. Joseph Kaiser and Shenyang were good fits for their roles as the baddies, but even Kaiser failed to draw the full extent of Grimoaldo’s conflict and the change that he undergoes from the beautiful arias that Handel gives this character.

Ultimately however, the singers were competing with an enormous stage set that was certainly inventive and brilliantly designed by Thomas Lynch to keep the action flowing, providing a sense of realism and spectacle, but – like Wadsworth’s production for Iphigénie en Tauride last season – it was much too elaborate for the smaller intimate scale of the human drama that is played out in such a work. The same can be said for the Met Orchestra, which played the score of Rodelinda well enough, but only partially using period instruments and arranged to fill a larger opera house, it lacked the rhythm, the simplicity, the beauty and the delicate touch of a Baroque orchestra. As ever with the Met then, we got a typically top-class opera production, with top-flight singers and an intelligent and considered approach to the work, but either the venue, the occasion or the medium of HD-Live is all wrong for Baroque opera, because this version of Handel’s Rodelinda just never came across as movingly, involvingly and lovingly as it should.