Händel - Giulio Cesare

ONP Palais Garnier, Tuesday February 1 2011

Conductor: Emmanuelle Haïm. Production and costumes: Laurent Pelly. Sets: Chantal Thomas. Lighting: Joël Adam. Giulio Cesare: Lawrence Zazzo. Cornelia :Varduhi Abrahamyan. Sesto: Isabel Leonard. Cleopatra: Natalie Dessay. Tolomeo: Christophe Dumaux. Achilla: Nathan Berg. Nireno: Dominique Visse. Curio: Aimery Lefèvre. Orchestra of the Concert d'Astrée, Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

I thought this midnight exchange of e-mails after Giulio Cesare might, as it sums up my first impressions, do as a start to my write-up:

Friend: So how was it? Dessay finally on form?

Me: My first thought: very good cast in theatre too big for them. I.e. not voiceless wonders à la Christie at all, but Garnier too big - and the production didn't help, with them often singing from the middle (i.e. not the front) of the stage with no sets behind.

Second thought: to me, Haim takes too many liberties with the score, yet at the same time, overall, achieves quite a humdrum effect - again to me, often apparently careless of what the singers are doing. I'll have to think more about that. I don’t like the near-total rewriting of the da capos for Dessay.

Dessay seemed on form tonight, yes. But does she rein in her voice so as not to overshadow the others?


Since then, re the problem of projection in a large theatre, people have kept telling me Garnier is small. But surely that’s only because they now compare it with the Bastille? Garnier has almost exactly the same number of seats as Covent Garden, and let’s not forget that for over 100 years it was Paris’s biggest opera venue. As far as I can gather (call that "Google") Händel's King's Theatre had half as many.

Then, sitting down to write this evening I recalled what the FT critic wrote, and wondered if he had in fact put his finger on it: “Händel’s glorious score would have sufficed but for the intransigence of the Baroque ayatollahs who insist on the original low pitch. This can work in the right acoustics but Garnier is a 19th-century house and requires considerable lung power. The cast find themselves grovelling for subterranean notes, most notably Lawrence Zazzo (Caesar), a fine musician with a ripe and robust alto voice as long as the music is comfortably above middle C. Isabel Leonard’s stylish Sesto would also feel happier a semitone higher and even Varduhi Abrahamyan’s woolly laments in the contralto role of Cornelia are sometimes inaudible.”

I’d previously found Zazzo impressively audible at the Bastille, so maybe this was the clue after all.

Anyway, to move on… The contrast between Cesare and Tolomeo was good: Zazzo’s is a more virile, huskier timbre, more carefully (beautifully) phrased too, than Dumaux’ more straightforward, “petulant” sound (I’m not complaining, just trying to explain the difference). Isabel Leonard was excellent throughout, though not as vehement as, say, Della Jones (nor did she sing with a Welsh accent); Varduhi Abrahamyan maybe less so… Nothing inherently wrong with her voice, but I’ve often heard fuller-bodied and more moving Cornelias. Nathan Berg had a good, ripe, dark middle but even at low, baroque pitch put out some ugly top notes. Visse (I’ve said this before, but what else is there to say?) was Visse.

The reason for the specific question about Natalie Dessay (“Dessay finally on form?”) was that she’s had rather a chequered run so far, having once had to stop the music and start again, and at another performance give up after two acts. Yesterday evening she stayed the full course, made the (marvellously fluent) coloratura sound simple and occasionally let rip, but on the whole – whether recovering from illness or simply still scared – I think she was being cautious. her acting was less committed than usual too, it seemed to me. She looked marvellous, though, with spiky, short hair.

Now, what about Emmanuelle Haim? I make no pretence to know much about baroque performing practice, but as I said above, I suspect her of taking liberties with the score, so much so that what I hear at times sounds to me (i.e. to my ignorant ear) like no less of an arrangement than Sir Hamilton Harty’s old, un-PC and probably now forgotten ones for “romantic” orchestra. Some critics have praised the "imaginative" da capos; to me, again as I said, Dessay’s were more like total rewrites, and in dubious style. And though Haim (like Biondi in Vivaldi) goes for effects – exaggeratedly staccato chords, for example, pizzicato passages, or the unusual highlighting of a particular instrument (a recorder suddenly tooted out over the orchestra for the closing cadence of the score) , this doesn’t seem to extend, as you might expect it would, to tempi: fast arias aren’t very fast, slow ones aren’t very slow and indeed have something perfunctory about them, as if deliberately avoiding sentiment. It’s this evenness of tempo, I think, that brought the word “humdrum” to my mind, and its relentless chugging on that seemed, at times, careless of the singers.

But all this sounds very negative for an evening with not a moment’s actual boredom. No doubt “Handel’s glorious score” guaranteed that – as usual. He’s always the hero of the evening.

The production is a new one, by Laurent Pelly. It's set in the reserves of an Egyptian museum, a single vast space with a goods lift and a door to the right (fire extinguisher on the wall), a motorised shutter at the rear (that rose to reveal the distant pyramids in a sandstorm) and on the left, a series of tall warehouse stacks that could roll in and out. Indeed, museum workmen wheeled, trolleyed, trucked and fork-lifted statues, urns, columns, display cases, models, carpets, etc., in and out and around all evening while the historic characters acted their parts out among them. Now they saw the singers and sometimes joined in - as soldiers, for example - now they didn't. Some critics found this at once too busy and, over four hours and twenty minutes, too boring, but I found it cleverly done - there was more variety to the staging than they implied. It was the same store-room space throughout but:

Act one was in the sculpture department. The opening chorus was sung by a row of assorted antique busts on a shelf on the left, Caesar arived first in bronze and only then in the form of Lawrence Zazzo, and Pompey's head was that of a colossal statue, delivered to the museum suspended on a fork-lift trolley and, as such, came as less of a shock than the severed, human kind, a case of the production concept undermining the drama; critics complained of the overall distancing effect, along with the constant distractions. Each act had one or two impressive, large-scale items; here, Celopatra made her entry on a giant, reclining statue, and her "fight" with Tolomeo (barefoot and bare-headed but in a "dress" of lapis lazuli tiles) involved keeping or taking it. Caesar and Tolomeo "met" each other on Egyptian chairs in separate glass cases.

Act two was in the painting department. Depictions of Cleopatra from the Renaissance to 19th century orientalists, framed and unframed glided from left to right and back and forth, mixed with 18th century fantasies of ancient, Arcadian landscapes. For the seduction scene, Cleopatra's maids and the on-stage instrumentalists were all - men as well as women - in pastel-coloured, Watteau-style dresses and high white wigs, and she sang (and "vogued") "V'adoro, pupille"inside a golden frame, with a landscape behind her. The famous portrait of Händel by Hudson looked on, the object of curious scrutiny by Nireno.

Act three opened on Tolomeo's debauchery (as well as being surrounded by girls he seemed also to be getting a blow-job from a kneeling, bare-chested muscle-man) in the carpet store, but ended with simple packing cases stacked up as a podium for the two thrones. Cleopatra was duly delivered in one of the carpets. The impressive set piece here was a majestic, full-scale felucca sail at the rear; and during "Da tempeste," workers proudly carried a model ship, then other ancient items, across the apron. During the final chorus, their wives turned up at the door to fetch them and they switched out the lights and left: it was the end of the working day.

So yes, it was quite a distancing production but to me well done. Caesar unfortunately pulled the short straw in the costume department, all grey and dusty like the statue of the Commander. He could have looked and acted a lot more heroic. But I was more concerned about the lack of projection from the stage as musically, apart from my suspicions, it was good.

The question is, why did the Paris Opera order a new production of Cesare instead of keeping the old one (a fun and in fact influential 80s staging by Hytner) but adding another Händel piece to its repertoire?