Kálmán, Peter


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.

Gioachino Rossini - Otello ossia Il Moro di Venezia

Opernhaus Zurich, 2012 | Muhai Tang, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, John Osborn, Cecilia Bartoli, Peter Kálmán, Javier Camarena, Edgardo Rocha, Liliana Nikiteanu, Nicola Pamio, Ilker Arcayürek | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 8th March 2012

There’s always going to be some difficulty in staging Rossini’s Otello ossia Il Moro di Venezia, and it’s not just because of the liberties that Rossini’s opera takes with Shakespeare’s work. True, the libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi doesn’t really keep to the development or characterisation of Shakespeare’s work, but it does manage to get to the heart of the drama and retain some of the dark mood of the piece. No, much of the difficulty with staging Otello is due to the often static nature of the work which is still tied closely to the conventions of opera seria, with long-winded expressions of agonising emotions and a great deal of repetition.

Otello

It’s only the brilliance of Rossini’s musical inventiveness in the scoring that makes it work so well as an opera, matching the music more closely to the moods, reducing recitative and solo lamentations in favour of concerted pieces that carry the drama through, playing out the drama through sung conversations. It doesn’t always manage to break free from the restrictions of the format however, which can be rather punishing on the singers and the audience, so a stage production requires a certain amount of inventiveness as well. Directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, who failed to enliven Halévy’s semiseria Clari for the Zurich Opera, despite the best efforts of its champion Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn (also on board here), the team fare rather better with Otello, but one suspects that the reason for its success here – and why their previous collaboration wasn’t quite so successful – has much to do with Rossini’s rather more invigorating writing.

Initially, things don’t look promising in the rather dreary Act I. There’s nothing at all wrong with the updating the work to a modern setting, to a “corridors of power” wood-panelled waiting room, populated by figures in formal suits and high-ranking military naval uniforms, with rooms leading off in the background where various committees no doubt plan future strategies. It’s as good as setting as any for the plotting and scheming that lies at the heart of the work, but unfortunately, it proves to be rather dreary and static for the opening dramatic exposition. Figures standing around, there’s a bit of slow pacing up and down, and little to enliven the characterisation or solemn declamation as the Moor Otello returns battle, having defeated the Turks and regained Cyprus for Venice as the centre of the Adriatic Republic.

Otello

While there is professional jealousy over Otello’s success on the part of Rodrigo and Iago that is set-up in Act I, and some consideration of the Moor’s outsider status as a black-skinned African, evidently the main focus of the rivalry is over Otello gaining favour with Desdemona. In this version however, Otello is already secretly married to Desdemona, so when Iago suggests that she may be unfaithful, it really requires no great manipulation – Otello, insecure about his own position, is all too ready to mistrust Desdemona. Being somewhat opera seria in structure, the expressions of emotional turmoil are however given precedence over any consistency in characterisation or motivation, which makes this dramatically weak and inconsistent. The nature of Otello and Desdemona’s relationship has scarcely been established by the plot and by little actual confidences shared between them (Verdi would do this much better in his version), only in Desdemona’s expressions of her love to Emilia, her lady in waiting. If it’s all insufficiently established in dramatic terms, the music makes it much more compelling.

Act II and Act III in particular see Rossini at his best, breaking free of those operatic restrictions, using duets, ensembles and rising repetition to ramp up the tension and emotional fever pitch of the situation. Even if the stage direction gives the performers little to do in the absence of any conventional drama, Rodrigo’s ‘Che ascolto’ in Act II could hardly be more chilling, given a particularly powerful delivery here by Javier Camarena. In an opera that requires no less than three tenors in demanding singing roles, that intensity is matched in Otello and Iago’s Act II scene. If dramatically it’s less than convincing, musically it’s powerful, avoiding recitative and putting the emotion into the singing. Working with this kind of material, John Osborn does a good line in all-consuming jealousy in ‘Non m’inganno’ that is matched by Edgardo Rocha’s Iago enjoying the thrill of twisting people to his will, Rossini managing to encapsulate both emotions within the duetto.

Desdemona is rather less well-defined, carrying an over-urgency in everything she sings, which means that Cecilia Bartoli often sounds rather strident. No, not shrill – never that. Bartoli is still one of the finest – if not the finest – mezzo-soprano bel canto coloratura singers in the world, at her best when singing Rossini, and she is in terrific voice here. Barring her Act III ‘Willow Song’ however, the role is lacking in colour and shading, and it comes across more perhaps as exaggeratedly strident. It’s still an astonishingly display of singing virtuosity, Bartoli moreover also managing to bring real character to her role. She is absolutely chilling at the end of Act II and throughout Act III, making her inevitable fate at the hands of Otello (the scene had been reworked for a happy end, but the original is used here), dramatically shocking and highly effective. And does Act III contain the earliest example of a ‘mad scene’? It comes close and is certainly depicted as such in the production, Desdemona scrawling on the walls, the whole scene working well with the score.

Happily then, after the rather unimaginative first Act and start of the second, Leiser and Caurier’s stage direction picks up to meet the exceptionally high standard of the singing and the intensity of the musical arrangements – superbly conducted under Muhai Tang. The cold emptiness of Desdemona’s bedroom at the start of Act II and in Act III (perhaps this is how it’s intended to appear for a reason) are necessarily minimal, but the success of the production hinges on the playing out of the seeds of jealousy sown by Iago. This scene takes place in what looks like a seedy Turkish bar, with a fridge and a pool table. If the contrast to the preceding (and subsequent) scenes only underlines the outsider status of Otello, it’s effective, but it also proves to be the ideal place for the barroom brawl that erupts between the highly charged natures (wound up of course by Iago) of Otello and Rodrigo, the two men grabbing pool cues and heading for the back alley through the fire-doors at the back, despite Desdemona’s vain (over-urgent and strident) attempts to restrain them.

It’s clear then that the directors have recognised the difficulties of staging Otello and approached it well, using broader strokes in the sets to contrast the nature of the Moor with those of the state, using lighting effectively for mood, but also seeking to find smaller details to highlight. It isn’t always possible to bring any great subtlety to the work within the restrictions of the libretto and the almost opera seria-like arrangements, but this is more than compensated for by the vibrant delivery of the score and the outstanding singing performances.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.