Händel - Giulio Cesare (Jules César, Julius Caesar) at Garnier

ONP Paris Garnier, Monday February 12 2024

Conductor: Harry Bicket. Production and Costumes: Laurent Pelly. Sets: Chantal Thomas. Lighting: Joël Adam. Giulio Cesare: Gaëlle Arquez. Cleopatra: Lisette Oropesa. Sesto: Emily D'Angelo. Cornelia: Wiebke Lehmkuhl. Tolomeo: Iestyn Davies. Achilla: Luca Pisaroni. Nireno: Rémy Brès. Curio: Adrien Mathonat. Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris. Unikanti Chorus.

Photos: Vincent Pontet/ONP

This Cesare is a reprise of Laurent Pelly's 2011 production, which I wrote about at the time. For a description of his staging, click through here and scroll down to 'The production is a new one, by Laurent Pelly.' Having seen it again this week, I feel less positive about it than I did at the time. But (a little bit) more of that later.

So now, all I have to do is write about the musical aspects. I have, however, an impediment. In the first act, every time Emily d'Angelo sang, her voice came with what in French would be called a 'grésillement,' a faint, metallic, high-pitched and slightly hollow buzz that made me wonder if her singing was amplified. It certainly didn't sound natural. During applause after an aria, I asked my neighbour what he thought: the same; he'd noticed it too. Then, at the interval, a friend who was with us quite spontaneously asked 'Isn't one of them amplified?' However, when I enquired of an eminent American critic I spotted on the stairs if he'd noticed anything, he said no.

He was seated in row six of the stalls. We were further back, on the front row of a wide box (première loge de face) just behind the raised, raked portion of the stalls known at Garnier as the 'balcon,' though not a balcony as such. Was he therefore near enough to the singers for their natural sound to come across louder than any amplification? Is any amplified sound only broadcast further back? Or were we just victims of a localised acoustic phenomenon? The question comes up from time to time. I think back to I Capuleti at the Bastille years ago, after which I complained that the sound hadn't seemed natural:

'It was a wall of sound: Polenzani's first notes rang out clarion-like from his corner at the rear of the stage, voices had no distinct direction and there was no change of volume whether Netrebko was facing the audience or had her back to us. DiDonato's shrillness was highlighted to the point of ugliness.'

Afterwards, I discussed the issue via WhatsApp with a friend, another eminent opera critic. As he said, you can always find people with links to the opera world who will tell you all opera houses are 'lifted,' including Vienna. 'Funny how we can’t find out for sure. Someone must know,' he added, which is true. For every person making the first claim, you'll find another denying it insistently. The issue is never resolved. But he agreed, too, that 'sometimes acoustics play funny tricks. A powerful singer can ricochet quite naturally off a protruding balcony for example, giving an amplified effect.' I remember how odd it was, one evening at the old Salle Pleyel, to have the impression a clarinet - obviously yards away in front, in the middle of the orchestra - was playing straight into my left ear.

OK. We were sitting with a ton or so of gilded carving just above our heads. Maybe that was it. But this tinny reverberation was distracting and uncomfortable and made normal listening hard. The phenomenon affected Emily d'Angelo most, but when, in the last act, Lisette Oropesa stepped forward from centre-stage, carrying a stool, to the apron there was a sudden, obvious, jolting change from normal sound to this odd buzziness. Still, as Lisette Oropesa (apart from that one incident) and Gaëlle Arquez were mostly unaffected by it, I'd say theirs were, once they'd both warmed up and got over some instability in the first act, the most satisfactory performances of the evening.

This was not the first time I'd seen Gaëlle Arquez as Caesar. She was also in Damiano Michieletto's production, conducted by Philippe Jaroussky, in 2022. There, my conclusion was 'As Caesar, Gaëlle Arquez sang irreproachably, with a firm, warm, bronze timbre, but the production undermined her character by making him a victim of fate from the outset. As a result, (s)he lacked authority - indeed any distinct personality or sense of agency.' Here, she was more assertive and even, sometimes, despite the part noticeably lying a few notes low for her, reminded me just a little bit of Dame Janet Baker, all those years ago at the Coliseum. However... (see later, regarding the production).

Talking of Dame Janet's Caesar, I honestly sat there wondering if I'd heard such a striking Cleopatra since Valerie Masterson, who was with Dame Janet at the ENO under Mackerras. Lisette Oropesa takes us back, you might say, to those days when the likes of Baker, Masterson, Della Jones, Sheila Armstrong, Robert Tear and others sang Händel - with a modern orchestra - and sang it very well. Once she'd warmed up, as I just said, she put in a faultless performance: her voice was firm, agile, bright (my neighbour said 'hard' but I don't agree)... And while she threw herself gaily into the lively business originally conceived for Natalie Dessay, radiating charm, she was possible even more successful in the 'slow' arias, 'Se pietà di me non senti' and 'Piangerò la sorte mia' especially. Whether or not she's stylistically a Cleopatra by current standards didn't seem to matter, though the question nagged me a bit.

The distortion I discussed above, whether electronic or simply acoustic, made it hard to hear Emily d'Angelo clearly. Her voice isn't dissimilar to Gaëlle Arquez's, only where the latter's is a grainy bronze, hers is a shade lighter, a kind of coppery gold, and less forceful. (in Ariodante, in the same house, less than a year ago, she had sometimes been quite hard to hear.). It's probably just as well that Arquez, in the end, sang Caesar and d'Angelo Sesto. She got off to a promising start, but seemed by the end to be tired and, as a result, a touch unsteady. She didn't project a very definite character (but see later, regarding the production).

I've so often quoted a remark made about Iestyn Davies by a friend of mine after Benjamin's Written on Skin in 2013 that I told myself I'd give it a rest this time - only this time, it's actually especially relevant: 'He sings beautifully but you always feel he's going to sing Evensong at you.' As Tolomeo, Davies certainly sang beautifully, and he's a good actor, too. But somehow he lacks, as a character, the dark, diabolical charm, the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' seductiveness that seems to come naturally to Christophe Dumaux. Davies is not such a convincing 'bad boy' (Dumaux seems to have 'bad boy' tattooed all over him), so his Tolomeo felt less assertive, not really wicked at all.

Wiebke Lehmkuhl was an unexpected Cornelia, rich and ripe and dark, mostly reining in her Hojotoho! capabilities but occasionally giving us a startling glimpse. Luca Pisaroni made a resounding, 'chocolatey'-voiced Achilla, but didn't seem altogether at ease in his unflattering mini-dress and tin helmet. The reedy Nireno of Rémy Brès (new to me) was reduced, in this production, to a faintly embarrassing (and probably racist) comic act recalling Wilson, Keppel and Betty's old music-hall 'sand dance':

Reading around online, I get the impression we aren't supposed to like Harry Bicket's Händel, but I do. I've said it before (and put it down to being English): I'm quite happy with 'his restrained, stick-to-the-score approach, not necessarily craving the dramatic gestures of a Minkowski or Jacobs, though I do love Rousset's spring.' Here I was impressed by the delicacy and balance he achieved from the very first notes with the Opéra orchestra: this time, the house hadn't brought in a period band from outside, as it often does for Rameau or Händel, but employed its own musicians. They must like him, as their playing was disciplined and attentive, and they stayed to applaud the soloists. The horns were on their best behaviour.

Which brings me to two overall conclusions, one about the music and the other about the production.

The music. Harry Bicket is a 'HIP' conductor, and when he conducted Ariodante at Garnier last year, it was with the English Concert. Emily d'Angelo sang the title role at the time. Here we had a modern, Paris Opera orchestra. Lisette Oropesa certainly sings Händel - I saw her in Theodora in 2021, under Emelyanychev - but the last time I saw her was as Ophelia in Thomas's Hamlet, just under a year ago. Like Luca Pisaroni, Gaëlle Arquez has quite a wide repertoire; though as I wrote above, I've already seen her as Caesar, under Jaroussky with the Ensemble Artaserse. Iestyn Davies is a countertenor. Wiebke Lehmkuhl sings Erda, Flosshilde, Grimgerde and the Erste Norn... Somehow, overall, you ended up feeling this performance couldn't make its mind up. It was neither 'HIP' nor 'old school', but sat uncomfortably somewhere in-between.

The production. Apparently Laurent Pelly didn't supervise this reprise himself. Perhaps that was a contributing factor. But it seems to me that his production (a) relies too much on a dizzying maelstrom of sets and props, wheeled in and out, rather than actual directing, and so (b) having established that the characters are basically ghosts haunting the store-rooms of an oriental museum, neglects to bring them more definitely to life. Apart from Cleopatra - as I said, Lisette Oropesa threw herself gamely into Dessay's Schtick, but even that, in Pelly's vision, is a too uniformly coquettish caricature - the other characters lack flesh-and-blood impact, albeit to varying degrees. I was drawn back to this Cesare for Oropesa, and I'm glad I went. But as a production, it still remains, as in 2011 and perhaps even more so, on the surface, ignoring and thereby diminishing the psychological insights, the striking penetration of Händel's great score.


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