Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Tears and Hope" (on Handel's Giulio Cesare)

tears and hope
by Douglas Messerli
Nicola Francesco Haym (libretto, after Giacomo Francesco Busani’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto), George Frideric Handel (music) Giulio Cesare / Metropolitan Opera Company, New York / live HD broadcast, April 27, 2013

Handel’s beautiful opera, Giulio Cesare—along with Rodelinda, among his post popular works—might be said to alternate between extremes: tears and hope. And the Glyndebourne-created production performed by the MET plays with those serial shifts, joyfully spoofing both Caesar’s / Cesare’s (countertenor David Daniels) and Ptolemy’s / Tolomeo’s (Christope Dumaux) grabs for power between the tearful tribulations of the proud and beautiful Cornelia (Patricia Bardon), Pompey’s widow, and her son Sextus / Sesto (Alice Coote)—both of whom sang particularly well in Saturday’s performance. David McVicar’s introduction into Handel’s drama of British-like colonialists creates comic yet appropriate tensions that turn Cleopatra’s Egypt into a strange amalgam of numerous colonially controlled cultures from India (by the British) to Turkey (by the Greeks). Marching and dancing their way through the newly captured country, Cesare’s “legions” appear more like soldiers out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta than conquering heroes, and their bumbling, often leering and jocular behavior clearly predicts their third act defeat by Tolomeo’s troupes.

     Similarly, in this version Cleopatra (the ever-active Natalie Dessay) represents the character as a series of contradictions. Beginning as a playful if domineering sister to the ineffectual, but nonetheless boastful Tolomeo, she quickly shifts to a scheming competitor for her brother’s crown, meanwhile passing as a 1920s flapper named Lidia and, upon falling in love with Cesare, turning into a seductress and, upon his apparent death, a lamenting woman (“Se pietà di me no senti”) like Cornelia. By opera’s end, she has also danced—as Dessay described it at intermission—in a Broadway-like chorus line and soon after becomes a crowned queen.

     This production, in short, while at times audaciously anarchistic, even campy, nonetheless emphasizes the dualities dominating Handel’s work, both musically and narratively. In a work in which the proud, even haughty Roman Cornelia later washes herself and her son in Tolomeo’s blood, and in which her seemingly incompetent Hamlet-like son finally becomes enabled to enact revenge, we cannot but see it as a series of ups and downs. Not only does Giulio Cesare alternate between visions of tears and hope, between terrible deaths and love, but moves in and out of sexual identity. Even in Handel’s day, with the performances of several of its male leads by castrati, the work must have suggested sexual incongruities, but the Glyndebourne production takes advantage of these sexual indistinctions. One character, Nireno—who guides several of the opera’s figures to each other—is played as a flamboyantly gay character. Tolomeo appears to be not only bisexual—apparently attracted to his soldiers and his loyal Achilla—but early on expresses incestuous desires for his own sister, as well as expressing his prowess in his harem, while dressed like a gay S&M figure in harem pants. Sesto (wonderfully performed by female “pants” specialist Coote), dominated by his mother, seems to be almost sexless.

      In further extremes, loyal followers such as Achilla turn against their leaders, while Tolomeo’s sister, as I previously mentioned, plots against her brother. Even the dead, in this production, return to life, Cesare’s soldiers suddenly springing up again upon his command, and the two bloodied corpses of Tolomeo and Achilla joining up with other cast members for the coronation party at opera’s end.

      While opera purists and, perhaps, even Handel himself might not have approved of this 21st century reading of this great opera, I would argue that the constant alteration between the comic winking and the tragic melancholic emotions of this work is already embedded in Handel’s music and the original libretto, and is part of what makes this work so vital as it spins out its tearful hopes, its sorrowful dreams of peace and love.


Los Angeles, April 30, 2013

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