Drole, Ruben


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.

GenovevaRobert Schumann - Genoveva

Opernhaus Zürich, 2008 | Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Martin Kušej, Juliane Banse, Shawn Mathey, Martin Gantner, Cornelia Kallisch, Alfred Muff, Ruben Drole, Tomasz Slawinski, Matthew Leigh | Arthaus Musik

Genoveva (1850), Robert Schumann’s only opera, was composed around the same time that Richard Wagner was working on material for Lohengrin and the Ring of the Niebelungen and it represents an interesting alternative view of how folklore, mythology and legends could be used as an expression of essential Germanic characteristics elevated through the art of the opera or music drama. Genoveva however was regarded as a failure when it was first produced, and Schumann would consequently never compose another opera, so it’s the Wagnerian model that has succeeded as the dominant influence, but Schumann’s approach would appear to be more deeply rooted in relating these characteristics elevated in mythology back down to the nature of the individual, and that consequently makes the story of Genoveva rather an interesting one.

Ostensibly, the work is an account of the medieval legend of the martyrdom of St Genevieve, the story promoting the virtues of truth and purity when Genoveva, the Countess of Brabant, is unjustly accused of infidelity, imprisoned and (in the original legend) executed only for her innocence later to be discovered. Schumann’s approach to the work is rather more complicated in its focus and in its unconventional depiction of the varied characters. In the story, Genoveva rejects the advances of her head servant Golo while her husband Siegfried is away fighting in Charles Martel’s crusade against the Saracen army of Abdur Rahman that is threatening to invade Europe. Consumed by desire for the Count’s wife and smarting from her rejection, Golo conspires to have Genoveva denounced for adultery by arranging for another servant, an old man, Drago, to be found in her bedroom. While one should expect sympathy to lie with the unjustly maligned Genoveva and with the husband whose trust has been abused by his servant, a large part of the opera is given over to consideration of the “lower orders”, giving depth to Golo, Margaretha and Drago, and it’s there that we find, perhaps, more interesting facets of human nature and German character.

Genoveva

That approach is emphasised very much in Martin Kušej’s staging of the rarely performed work for the Zurich Opernhaus in 2008. As with his De Nederlandse productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Der Fliegende Höllander, and perhaps even in his Bayerische Staatsoper production of Rusalka, there’s a sense of class conflict within the consuming passions that is emphasised also in Kušej’s Genoveva. Using a boxed-in set of pure white walls (although they don’t stay that way for long), the set design bears little resemblance to the medieval period setting of the work. Within this space, the four figures of the central drama are often present, even if they aren’t required to be on the stage. In the case of Siegfried, for example, even though we know he’s gone to fight in the crusades in Act II, he’s physically still present there on the stage while the drama unfolds between Golo and Genoveva, even if he doesn’t take part in the action. It’s a rather avant-garde Brechtian theatrical device, but it serves to keep the focus on the drama and the overheated emotions between each of the characters – other action usually takes place off to the sides of the boxed area – showing that the influence or “presence” of the key players is important, even if they aren’t actually there.

Kušej also makes use of his now trademark shock tactics of minor nudity and plenty of blood also to tremendous effect. Distancing techniques – the characters laughing uncontrollably during the overture, squashing invisible insects and wrestling with a slippery dead fish – are used to suggest that the libretto shouldn’t be taken entirely literally when Siegfried refers to Genoveva as “a woman of true German stock”, while she for her part observes that it’s “a blessing to be the wife of a hero”, and Schumann’s score would tend to suggest that this indeed shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. While such aspirations are noble, and one would be accustomed to accepting them as such in a Wagner opera, there are characters of lower orders present in Schumann’s opera with genuine grievances about their treatment and station, even if their means of wresting back some kind of justice can only be achieved through violence and subversion. Without taking anything away from the noble characteristics of Genoveva then (Siegfried is shown in a less heroic light by Schumann and certainly in Kušej’s staging, enjoying the pleasures of the witch Margaretha at the opening of Act III), the suggestion is perhaps that these figures have a voice that needs to be heard if such actions are to be avoided.

Genoveva

Kušej accordingly sets the opera in Schumann’s own period to reflect the social and political climate as he would have known it around 1848. Whether you buy into the devices and techniques employed by the director, the staging nonetheless has a striking, distinctive look that commands attention where the drama as it is outlined in the libretto ordinarily might not. Genoveva is not considered to be a dramatically strong work, and the criticism is often levelled against it that it’s a failed work because of this, so it’s even more to the credit of Kušej’s staging that it better reveals the distinctions of the characterisation that are clearly there. It is perhaps true that, musically at least, Schumann doesn’t manage to find a distinct voice for each of the characters – musically, it’s restrained, with few grand gestures and only some gentle choruses to punctuate the long monologues – but considerable impact can be drawn from the subject with commitment from the performers and a conductor who is keen to get to the heart of an important but underrated work in the history of German opera.

Fortunately, it has that not only with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the helm and a fine performance of the orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich, but in the singing of an exceptionally fine and committed cast who are often called upon to sing in difficult positions and occasionally perform somewhat undignified or just plain bizarre actions. Juliane Banse in particular is outstanding in the rather demanding role of Genoveva, but Shawn Mathey is a committed Golo and Martin Gantner a fine Siegfried. Cornelia Kallish and Alfred Muff also make a strong impression in the roles of Margaretha and Drago. This is far from bel canto however, and if the singing appears unexceptional in some parts, the acting and commitment to the roles proves just as important. The booklet included with the BD includes a fine thought-provoking essay on the work by Ronny Dietrich, the principal dramatic advisor of the Zurich Opera. It may take some persuading to accept Kušej’s belief that Golo is the central figure of the work and not Genoveva, but it is worth considering that the composer would have probably identified with Golo in his troubled relationship with Clara Schumann’s father.

The quality of the Blu-ray presentation itself is good, and the image is relatively clear. Some minor blue-edges and a little bit of vertical shimmer could have been avoided with a BD50 disc instead of a BD25 for the two-and-a-half-hour opera. It in no way however detracts from the overall quality or sharpness of the image or the fine high quality audio tracks in DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 and PCM 2.0, where there is only a slight dullness in the voices at times due to the boxed-in stage set.