Not a Dull Moment in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at Komische Oper Berlin

GermanyGermany  Handel, Giulio Cesare in Egitto: Chorsolisten und Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin/Konrad Junghänel (conductor), Komische Oper Berlin, 11.9.2015 (MC)

             Handel Giulio Cesare  in Egitto © Iko Freese drama

Sung in Italian. Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym to a libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani.

Giulio Cesare: Dominik Köninger
Cleopatra: Sydney Mancasola
Cornelia: Ezgi Kutlu
Sesto Pompeo: Theresa Kronthaler
Tolomeo: Anna Bernacka
Achilla: Nikola Ivanov
Pompeo: Klaus-Richard Dunnbier
King Cleopatra: Philine Scholtyssek
King Tolmeao: Louis Lemme

Musical direction: Konrad Junghänel
Stage direction: Lydia Steier
Stage design: Katharina Schlipf
Costumes: Ursula Kudrna
Dramaturgy: Johanna Wall
Lighting: Diego Leetz
Chorus: David Cavelius

Attending the Komische Oper Berlin these days is almost guaranteed to be a fascinating evening and this lavish production of Handel’s Gulio Cesare in Egitto was no exception. Stage director Lydia Steier took the liberty of taking Handel’s setting of Gulio Cesare in Egypt around 48 BC forward to what seemed like a curious and heady mix of the era of revolutionary France and the Rocky Horror Show. At the work’s première in 1724 in London the castrato Francesco Bernardi, known as Senesino, took the title role so it came as a surprise that Steier had opted to use a baritone for the role not a counter-tenor.

Katharina Schlipf’s stage design employed several sets that were pulled noisily across the stage mainly featuring large, grubby rooms from a rundown mansion or palace complete with peeling paint and a huge hole in the roof. Occasionally adjacent parts of two rooms were shown simultaneously enabling the watching of two lots of action. With this hectic staging there was always something going on, even during set piece arias there would commonly be activity in the background which at times proved a distraction. It was hard to get the head around the production that was often serious and often humorous but there was certainly never a dull moment. Costume designer Ursula Kudrna had a debauched crowd of ridiculously dressed nobles and hangers-on that reminded me mainly of the time of the French revolution while the costumes of the often abused harem women of the Egyptian Royal court replicated Cleopatra’s gold pannier dress and jet black wig. The sexual maltreatment of the harem with Tolomeo, the biggest protagonist, seemed gratuitous and uncomfortable to watch and there were examples of extreme violence such as torture, including breaking fingers.

Energetic and entertaining in the title role German baritone Dominik Köninger kitted out in white with brown riding boots was very much the masculine hero, powerful and full of vitality. Excellent acting with good stage presence sadly his vocal rather lacked variety and tone colour, and wasn’t suited at all to baroque ornamentation. As Cleopatra, American soprano Sydney Mancasola was in excellent form both acting and vocally. As Caesar posed on the white horse, Mancasola in her haste to join him nearly fell off. I relished her secure, fluid, highly attractive vocal although her coloratura was a touch strained. According to her social media posting this evening’s performance was her international debut, her role debut as Cleopatra and her first ever performance of an opera by Handel, which makes her achievement in such a challenging role even more remarkable.

Stealing the show in the boy trouser role of Sesto Pompeo was German mezzo-soprano Theresa Kronthaler. Looking good in her blonde wig Sesto wore a pale mint coloured frock-coat with white vest (covered in blood for much of the time) and trousers. With such an attractive, creamily expressive vocal Kronthaler has a marvellous projection and her acting is top drawer too. A stunning performance from Anna Bernacka in the (leather) trouser role of Tolomeo must surely win her deserved accolades. I was totally engaged by Bernacka’s formidable portrayal and found myself hating Tolomeo’s pernicious behaviour rather like that of a pantomime villain. Bernacka’s jet black hair, purple frock coat with gold trim, brown leather jodhpurs and black boots made her stand out. Totally committed the dark toned, assured Polish mezzo-soprano was in secure voice providing excellent expression and heft.

Bulgarian baritone Nikola Ivanov played the bearded General Achill, carrying both a dagger and a curiously out of place handgun while smoking cigarettes. A fine actor Ivanov has a strong, expressive voice, good diction, although he struggled with the baroque ornamentation which required more fluidity. In excellent voice Turkish mezzo-soprano Ezgi Kutlu played the role of Cornelia Pompe the mother of Sesto with skill and conviction. Music direction was by Konrad Junghänel, an early music specialist, who directed a slower tempo than I wanted. Neverthless Junghänel’s Berlin ensemble played with unerring skill maintaining a high degree of concentration.

There are some spectacular individual performances in Handel’s Gulio Cesare in Egitto which make Lydia Steier’s captivating production one not to be missed.

Michael Cookson

Leave a Comment