Händel – Giulio Cesare

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Friday October 20 2006

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production: Irina Brook. Giulio Cesare: Andreas Scholl. Cleopatra: Rosemary Joshua. Cornelia: Sonia Prina. Sesto: Alice Coote. Tolomeo: Franco Fagioli. Achilla: Mario Cassi. Les Talens Lyriques.

This production has had very mixed reviews; perhaps it was because it was such a mixed bag.

Let’s start with what looked on paper like a dream cast. They certainly weren’t a nightmare; in fact, they were very nearly very good indeed. But somehow the evening lacked real thrills. Best of all was Alice Coote as Sesto (so this is the second time this season that Sesto has come out on top, the first being with Elina Garanca in La Clemenza di Tito). Apart from having a very fine voice (and leaving aside some hesitation over the highest notes), she seems to transcend “mere” acting to project genuine feeling – leading to some odd audience behaviour: a loud clap at the end of the first section of a da capo aria, a resounding Brava! and scattered applause at the end of the slow middle section and, finally, applause breaking out before the end of the orchestral coda.

Rosemary Joshua was so good as Cleopatra it seems ungrateful to criticise, but her portrayal, though highly competent, was in the end more simply pretty - and cautious at the top – than thrilling, lacking the brilliance, risk-taking and vocal punch of a Valerie Masterson or, more recently, the full, Latin sensuality of a Maria Bayo. Her Se pietà at the end of Act 2 was very, very good, but didn’t move the earth. Sonia Prina was a solid and serious, if not stunning, Cornelia, and Franco Fagioli was the right kind of “stage animal” counter-tenor to give us a petulant, if not always accurate, Tolomeo. Achilla and Nireno (for some reason unnamed on the theatre’s web-site) were good enough.

Unfortunately that can’t be said for Andreas Scholl. He sang with impeccable phrasing and elegance even in furiously fast – and accurate - runs (Al lampo dell’armi, for example, taken at a cracking pace)… as far as we could tell from excellent seats in the corbeille of this not-so-huge theatre. The problem was one of volume. Apart from the fact that the phenomenon of such a small voice emerging from such a large frame (Scholl is something of a giant and looked, with a three-day beard and in his crusader tunic, very like Jean Réno in Les Visiteurs) makes for a distinctly un-heroic hero, it simply isn’t possible for Caesar – who ought to dominate - to have the least audible voice in the cast.

Personally I like very much Christophe Rousset’s attention to nuance and detail, and the sound he elicits from his band is a good alternative to Les Arts Florissants, who under Christie may be too “feathery,” and Les Musiciens du Louvre, who under Minkowski can be too “martial.” But I can understand if some people feel the result is more a string of carefully detailed numbers than a strong sense of overall architecture binding together the three hours of music. The decision to use 100% natural horns with 100% natural tuning caused some problems; it has even been suggested the audience should have been warned, as on occasion the poor principal horn has been booed.

The production has come in for a great deal of stick, with many critics complaining, first of all, of déjà vu burnout (Sellars, Hytner and more recently McVicar’s Glyndebourne “Bollywood” take, all mentioned by, e.g., Le Figaro, La Libre Belgique and the FT). It was a single-set show: a stretch of yellow desert sand with, in Act 1, a signpost and some leopard skins laid out; in Act 2, a pool in front of the curtained, neon-signed entrance to The Oasis night-club; in Act 3, the carcass of a boat. This was beautifully lit against a changing blue sky, day and night.

Giulio and his men were, as mentioned, in kind-of medieval crusader tunics, but with machine guns. Cornelia had a cardigan over a satin evening dress and Sesto wore a sort of Tintin-like safari suit. Tolomeo looked something like a youngish Ozzie Osborne in a pink satin suit, and his henchmen were pure, black-suited Mafiosi. Cleopatra looked very like Mylène Farmer, more so than the late Franco-Egyptian singing star Dalida (France’s Shirley Bassey) she was directed to imitate at one point. Her costumes were tacky: “as if she’d bought an ill-fitting evening dress at H&M” said my neighbour.

Though not quite the remake of Carry on Cleo some critics made it sound, the action was more a series of good-humoured jokes with occasional slapstick (Sesto pushing Tolomeo’s face into the dessert, or Tolomeo, again, getting pushed into the pond) than displaying any sense of over-arching design. Personally, unlike some of the critics, I felt the transition between jolly japes and serious emotion was better handled than in the Glyndebourne production.

So, not a great Händel evening, and certainly not a very conquering hero, but maybe not quite the fiasco some people have made out.

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