Composer: George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Harry Bicket
Producer/Director: David McVicar
Giulio Cesare: David Daniels
Cleopatra: Natalie Dessay
Cornelia: Patricia Bardon
Sesto Pompeo: Alice Coote
Tolomeo: Christophe Dumaux
Achilla: Guido Loconsolo
Nireno:Rachid Ben Abdeslam
When a few months ago my mum announced that she was timing her annual visit to be able to catch the last performance of Handel's Giulio Cesare at the Met with me, mainly to get a chance to hear dazzling coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay in person, I was kind of ambivalent about it, and not just because her being here for my birthday sounded rather coincidental in her master plan. The truth is, I am not particularly fond of Baroque music, especially the mercilessly omnipresent harpsichord and endless repetitions, I don't really care for counter-tenors or trouser roles, and I would have to attend a four-and-a-half-hour opera on a Friday night after a full work week.
I remember putting myself through Rinaldo in Prague for the sake of watching a live performance in the city's historical Estates Theatre - Mozart's home away from home - and while I was beyond thrilled to spend an evening within those prestigious walls, the opera itself hadn't done much to endear Handel to me. But then again, hearing Natalie Dessay in New York City is too rare a pleasure these days, the performance would start at 7:00 pm, and I would not have to rack my brain for a Mother's Day gift. So there I was on Friday night, tired but having made up my mind that I could and I would handle Handel without grimacing or falling asleep.
Julius Caesar and Cleopatra being probably one of the first power couples in history, they have naturally inspired myriads of works, for better or worse. An immediate success when it first came out, Handel's Giulio Cesare subsequently underwent quite a few revisions before falling into obscurity. Nowadays it is performed regularly throughout the world and has been heralded as Handel's finest Italian opera, with enough dramatic weight and musical merit to capture and keep everybody's attention. I was ready to let myself be convinced.
To go straight to the essential, Natalie Dessay was there and was, as far as I am concerned, the best thing about the evening. Her celebrated sharp acting skills and nifty comic timing served her particularly well in a role for which she had to be playful and intelligent, vulnerable and willful, in short a woman of many facets and emotions. Her voice, which is not big but deeply penetrating and endlessly flexible, sounded well-suited for Baroque music and made itself beautifully heard. My highlight of the whole production was the deceptively simple but irresistibly seductive aria "V'adoro pupille", which she delivered while sensually dancing in a scintillating outfit, deftly presenting herself as the ultimate exquisitely sparkling little jewel.
The other full-fledged woman in the story fared remarkably well too with mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, who was a majestically dignified Cornelia, beaten but undefeated. Her noble presence and assured singing powerfully conveyed the new widow's broken spirit and unwavering resolve. As her son Sesto, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote decisively distinguished herself in the difficult role of a young boy suddenly having to grow up too quickly. Their duet at the end of Act I was a memorable moment of arresting harmony.
Among the male singers, the three counter-tenors confidently displayed plenty of talent among themselves, the top prize going to Christophe Dumaux as an inherently devious Tolomeo, complete with robust singing and magnetic presence. He was one brother/king you did not want to cross. Rachid Ben Abdeslam was a spontaneously engaging Nireno, never missing an opportunity to add a spark of comic relief. As Giulio Cesare, David Daniels came through as human and imperial, even if having a counter-tenor impersonate the mighty Roman emperor has always sounded a bit self-defeating to me in the first place. The only indisputably manly voice of the cast was newcomer baritone Guido Loconsolo, who gave a consistently solid, alluringly dark performance as Achilla, the ruthless advisor to Tolomeo.
The sets were uniformly attractive, brightly colorful yet minimalist enough not to overpower the action on the stage. Some expected elements such as a glittery Mediterranean in the background and some massive columns on the sides were part of the décors and provided vague notions of time and place, although sheer visual enjoyment was clearly more important than historical accuracy. And that was totally fine.
The costumes were sumptuous as well. Not unlike Madonna in concert, Natalie Dessay's costume changes were numerous, and occasionally perplexing. Her dancing and walking like a Bangles-style Egyptian was a fun touch during her first aria, but I did not really see the point of her turn as a care-free flapper girl, although she admittedly looked lovely and seemed to enjoy herself.
And granted, things had to be come up with in order to fill in the many times during which nothing happened, except for a repetition of what had just been done. So if sometimes incongruous, borderline silly, dance routines helped kill time, all the better for them. In all fairness, some of these overdrawn episodes were cleverly handled, in particular the one in which Cleopatra repeatedly tried to send Giulio Cesare off to safety as he was obstinately sticking around, all but smitten by the young woman's charms. Nevertheless, I, for one, was eventually more than ready to jump onstage and give her hand.
The score received a dynamic and respectful treatment by the always reliable Met orchestra and his conductor for the occasion, English maestro Harry Bicket. He seemed to know exactly where he was going and got there smoothly. The multiple arias were given room to brilliantly unfold, the continuo group impeccably fit in and concertmaster David Chan got a chance to gamely play a solo onstage as part of the production. So at the end of the evening, which was also the end of my season, Giulio Cesare proved to be a predictably overlong but often rewarding performance. And that was good enough.