United States Handel, Giulio Cesare: Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Harry Bicket (conductor), Lincoln Center, New York, 9.4.2013 (SSM)
Giulio Cesare: David Daniels
Cleopatra: Danielle de Niese (replacing Natalie Dessay)
Tolomeo: Christophe Dumaux
Cornelia: Patricia Bardon
Curio: John Moore
Achilla: Guido Loconsolo
Sesto Pompeo: Alice Coote
Nireno: Rachid Ben Abdeslam
David McVicar: Production
Robert Jones: Set Designer
Brigitte Reiffenstuel: Costume Designer
Paul Constable: Lighting Designer
Andrew George: Choreographer
Should I have been disappointed by the sudden absence of the indisposed Natalie Dessay for this second night’s performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare; or should I have been pleased that her replacement was Danielle de Niese, the soprano who took the part of Cleopatra in the original 2005 Glyndebourne production? Peter Gelb’s appearance on stage before the performance brought expectant moans from the cognoscenti, who knew that he would be announcing a change in the cast. If my internal applause meter was correct there were considerable more “Ahhhhhs” at the mention of Danielle de Niese’s name than at the mention of Natalie Dessay’s. De Niese seems to have captured the demanding hearts of New Yorkers. Her appearance at New York’s hot, all-music-is-welcome-here night club Le Poisson Rouge last October revealed a down-to-earth charmer. Her performance in the Met’s pastiche Enchanted Island was widely hailed.
The Met intelligently reproduced the staging of the Glyndebourne production almost to a T: all the original major designers were involved in the remake. The most critical change from the original was the casting of a countertenor in the role of Caesar as opposed to a mezzo in a pants role. Sarah Connolly was astonishing and absolutely riveting in the Glyndebourne production. David Daniels hit the right notes, but otherwise he paled in comparison.
Other members from the original cast included the ever-reliable Patricia Bardon whose complex character of Cornelia ran the gamut of emotions from desolation at the loss of her husband to anger and rage toward his killers. The opening “Ombra mai fu”-like “Priva son d’ogni conforto” was poignant. The duet with Sesto, “Son nata la lagrimar,” was well sung by Bardon but unfortunately marred by Alice Coote’s inability to match Bardon’s over-powering voice. Cornelia’s sudden change in character as expressed in her final aria, “Non ha più che temere” convincingly reflected both the trauma of the preceding events as well as her awareness that her once dependent son can now stand on his own.
Two secondary characters from the original production, Christopher Dumaux and Rachid Ben Abdeslam, excelled in singing, acting and dancing. Dumaux as Tolomeo added a physicality to the role not generally present in the rest of the cast (outside of de Niese). As the classic villain, his voice carried venom and cruelty in every note, and his gratuitous violence towards Cornelia and Cleopatra was palpable.
The counter-tenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam was outrageous as Cleopatra’s confidant, Nireno. Both his “Bollywood” dancing and his stylized singing of “Qui perde un momento” did not seem, surprisingly, inappropriate either to the opera or to the words of the text. This was true with all the dance numbers: they supplied Shakespearean moments of comic relief from the tragic tale unfolding.
Alice Coote in the pants role of Sesto, Cornelia’s son, was convincingly sullen throughout the entire opera. If her voice didn’t quite thrill as did Angelika Kirschschlager’s in the original cast, this is not meant to be a disparagement.
Guido Loconsolo, as the evil advisor to Tolomeo whom he ultimately abandons, sang with a forceful tenor voice. His evil ways and his lust for Cornelia mirror those of his malevolent master, Tolomeo.
There was, of course, much beautiful music. If there was one showstopper it would have to be “Se pieta” which closes Act II. Discussing this aria in an interview, de Niese stated how physically draining and exhausting the piece is to sing. There are few ten-minute arias of this emotional depth that can hypnotize an audience, but this one did. A similar statement applies to “V’adoro, pupille” from Act II. The aria “Va tacito” is a rarity in Baroque opera with an obbligato horn accompanying the singer. Daniels, while lacking the vocal projection he’s had in the past in this aria, nonetheless proved convincing. “Se in fiorito ameno prato” from Act II is a joyful and bubbly aria with solo violin accompaniment. Delightful as it is, it seems out of place in this opera, more reminiscent of the rustic “Sweet bird” of l’Allegro ed il Penseroso or the pastoral songs in Acis and Galatea.
Harry Bicket led a stripped-down Metropolitan Opera orchestra in a supportive and stylish fashion. There was no attempt to “go authentic,” which was the case with Glyndebourne’s original production under the direction of William Christie. If that had been tried here it might have resulted in a volume too low to fill a hall as big as the Met.
Now that both Enchanted Island and Giulio Cesare have been such successes, how about a selection from the dozens of Baroque operas that have been successfully produced in Europe in recent years? Any opera from Lully, Vivaldi or Rameau would be welcomed.