Händel - Giulio Cesare

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday February 3 2008

Conductor: René Jacobs. Production: Karl-Ernst & Ursel Herrmann. Sets, costumes and lighting: Karl-Ernst Herrmann. Giulio Cesare: Lawrence Zazzo. Cleopatra: Danielle de Niese. Tolomeo: Tania Kross. Cornelia: Christianne Stotijn. Sesto: Anna Bonitatibus. Achilla: Luca Pisaroni. Nireno: Dominique Visse. Curio: Lionel Lhote. Freiburger Barockorchester.

Am I getting too picky in my old age? My neighbours enjoyed this production a lot; I enjoyed it a lot less. For a start, in this work the comic and serious elements are finely balanced but directors persist in overemphasising the former to the detriment of the latter. I'm getting a bit fed up with that. And then, I found the aesthetic of this production too designer-trendy and self-conscious, much as my neighbours enjoyed it.

But I really wanted to start by wondering just how much better Luca Pisaroni can get. He was noticeably good in Alcina, better still in Don Giovanni, and now... It's a rare Cesare in which Achilla and Sesto steal the show, but it was certainly the case here. Pisaroni, first, outshone all the others in style and voice - are my ears deceiving me or does he not now sound quite like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau? He also outshone them in looks and presence. Definitely a cut above all his partners. And Anna Bonitatibus was a committed, convincing Sesto (though in unflattering, Just William-style long shorts, white shirt and school socks).

So, Achilla and Sesto came out tops. Which is suprising, as Cesare was Lawrence Zazzo. But either he was en petite forme, or maybe the part sits a little low for the best of his voice; at any rate he was unexpectedly disappointing (though by no means as inaudible as Andreas Scholl).

Now, when I bought the DVD of the Glyndebourne production (also too slapstick for my taste, and unoriginal) I wondered how much the apparent progress Danielle de Niese had made (in volume and accuracy) since I saw her as Cleopatra in Paris was due to miking and editing. Here was a chance to find out. Well, the voice, though still not large, is bigger and indeed more accurate. But I wish she'd leave it alone and sing straight, not pull it about in a way somehow reminiscent of Pop Idol (jazzy inflections, a mannered way of starting a note flat and vibrato-less, then opening a broad vibrato out at the end, Liza Minelli-style). Reminded me of someone else, initials RF, only we aren't allowed to criticise her; also the now unseen but not-very-lamented Maria Ewing... When De Niese uses her voice straight, it's fine; but she won't leave it alone and to me the result is irritatingy fussy.

Dominique Visse was Dominique Visse. I've used that line before, but it still stands. Christianne Stotijn was a young and rather pale Cornelia (though as ever it was the one part that retained some dignity), Tania Kross (yes, a woman) an uninteresting Tolomeo.

I had imagined that, as it overran 4 hours, this production included every note, but apparently not, according to Jacobs' programme notes. The Feiburger bunch made a lovely warm sound and were wonderfully accurate (even the natural horns in the famous obbligati), and I have always admired René Jacobs. But here it seemed to me that not only were the recitatives tiresomely slow, but he was taking liberties with the score, pulling it about to fit the action on stage and allowing Danielle de Niese some rather suspect high notes (not to mention her mannerisms). But perhaps I was just in a particularly picky mood, egged on by the production.

The set was a sea of tall, stiff white reeds in serried ranks in which characters (and extras and stage hands, in white face, white tie and tails, with quirky black feather headgear) often hid, and that could glide apart to let them approach. Caesar showed little nobility: he looked, dressed and behaved like Ricky Gervais in The Office. Cleopatra and her short, stout, bald-headed brother battled it out on elaborate, wheeled contraptions, Cleopatra's winged, Tolomeo's a pommel-horse with a horse's skull and tail. When Cesare confronted Tolomeo (played, as usual these days, as an imbecilic and petulant coward), Achilla (usually in a see-through suit with yellow shorts underneath, but here in a flowing dressing-gown) was coaching him at boxing, with a punch-ball. Nireno was, in this production, a sort of Arnalta, part nurse, part efficient secretary, in a dark, close-fitting dress with artficial buttocks, wedge heels and pointy spectacles. And so on...

I can't pretend I enjoyed it, but as I mentioned, others did, so who am I to say...?

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