Déjà Review: this review was first published in December 1998. The recording is currently out of the catalogue and will need to be sourced through third party vendors. Brian Wilson passed away in 2021.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Giulio Cesare, Opera Seria (London, 1724)
Giulio Cesare – Andreas Scholl (counter-tenor); Cleopatra – Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano); Cornelia – Randi Stene (contralto); Sesto – Tuva Semmingsen (soprano); Tolomeo – Christopher Robson (counter-tenor); Curio – John Lundgren (bass); Achilla – Palle Knudsen (bass); Nireno – Michael Mancini (counter-tenor)
Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen
Director: Francisco Negrin
rec. 2005, Royal Danish Theatre, Copenhagen
Harmonia Mundi HMD9909008.09 DVD [2 discs: 213]
I had high expectations of this recording and I was not disappointed. The sprightly performance of the overture sets the tone for a performance with a sense of period style. Whilst Concerto Copenhagen is not an aggressively ‘authentic’ ensemble, it does include two violone, a viola da gamba, a theorbo, baroque guitar and harpsichord continuo. Lars Ulrik Mortensen was one of the keyboard soloists in Trevor Pinnock’s 1981 recordings of the Bach Harpsichord Concertos, so his ‘authentic’ credentials are well established. I’m never too enamoured of up-close shots of individual players or of the expressive face of the conductor, but I appreciate that it is difficult to show an opera orchestra en masse and the overture is mercifully short.
The opening chorus, Viva il nostro Alcide, is sung by the whole cast, who appear on stage one by one, thus allowing the credits to identify them for us individually, but destroying Handel’s original design. (See below)
Andreas Scholl, as Cesare, has the difficult task of singing the first aria, Presti omai l’egizia terra, which he accomplishes well, though occasionally the orchestra covers his voice, an effect emphasised when the more powerful John Lundgren (Curio) replies. When Cesare denounces Tolomeo’s cruelty in his dealings with Pompey (Empio, dirò, tu sei!), Scholl’s voice seems to have warmed up and he makes a powerful impression, though here and later there are still occasional problems of balance with other singers and/or the orchestra. Modern counter-tenors, of course, have the perennial problem that their voices are inevitably not as ‘big’ as those of the castrati of Handel’s day. Perhaps this is the reason for Jonathan Rohr’s surprise that he was not more impressed with Paul Esswood in the role on a CD of highlights, Apex 2564 62018-2.
By the time that Cesare reappears to grieve at Pompey’s tomb, the problem is much less noticeable. In Acts II and III, too, such small problems as remain are more than compensated for by the excellence of his singing and his commanding stage presence. Television sound exaggerates the slight imbalance; heard through an audio system, with better spatial separation, the problem seems much less apparent.
Randi Stene (Cornelia) and Tuva Semmingsen (Sesto) make a good impression on their first appearance, both suitably histrionic as the head of Pompey is brought in – but did the box containing Pompey’s head have to be quite so obviously blood-stained? We have got the point – and doesn’t the libretto say that the head should be in un bacileaureo, a gold salver? Their private grief is well conveyed, with some affective singing, especially from Stene. Semmingsen is just a little too histrionic at first, but she sings well; her aria Svegliatevi nel core is accompanied by just the right degree of acting. The quality of singing in Tolomeo’s dungeon in Act II, Cornelia’s lament, Cessa omai di sospirare, and Sesto’s L’angue offeso are two of the highlights of this performance of the opera, with histrionics here kept to a minimum.
At their first encounter, Inger Dan-Jensen (Cleopatra) out-sings and out-performs Christopher Robson (Tolomeo), as Handel intended. Dan-Jensen literally revels in her part wherever she appears, not least here as she baits Tolomeo and in the scene where, as ‘Livia’, she seduces Cesare. In this scene, stage-business does not get in the way of some fine singing from both principals, though we could have done without the business of Cleopatra’s theft of Cesare’s general’s baton. This really is a Cleopatra of infinite variety, to quote Shakespeare’s description of her, derived from North’s translation of Plutarch. She is as convincing in her triumphant rendition of V’adoro pupille, as she entertains Cesare in Act II, as in her despair in prison in Act III.
Christopher Robson shares the counter-tenor problem to which I have already referred – as with Cesare and Curio, he is dwarfed vocally by his henchman Palle Knudsen (Achilla) – but this serves to bring out the ambiguity of Tolomeo. Robson’s rather effeminate performance (Cleopatra calls him effeminato amante) stresses Tolomeo as a dreamer of glory who cannot live up to those dreams, as when he tears up Cesare’s victor’s palm in impotent rage; his face speaks volumes here. In his triumph over Cleopatra in battle and in his double-dealing with Achilla, he presents Tolomeo as a thoroughly nasty character.
In the palace scene which ends Act I Cesare and Tolemeo manoeuvre around each other. Tolomeo’s face as Cesare sings Va tacito is a study. Scholl sings this very well, though memories of Janet Baker and a host of other female interpreters of this oft-performed aria are not expunged. Be this as it may, whatever the case for performances of the aria alone or audio-only recordings, a male singer as Cesare is surely preferable on stage. Here again Tolomeo is out-performed and out-sung, first by Cesare and then by Cornelia and Sesto, but that is the role which Handel gives him. What he is given to sing, Robson sings well, with a minimum of vocal comedic distortion reminiscent of Hugues Cuénod. That is meant as high praise, when Cuénod’s role as the ageing nymph Linfea is, for my money, one of the glories which make the wonderful Leppard recording of Cavalli’s La Calisto (Decca 476 2176) preferable to the much more historically correct Jacobs version.
Knudsen’s powerful voice and Yul Brynner-like good looks are just right for Achilla’s aria Tu sei il cor. The Duet of Cornelia and Sesto which follows, Son nata a lagrimar, is affectively and effectively sung, with a minimum of histrionics in the singing and action. The two elements of stage business, with the lamp which Cornelia brought to Pompey’s tomb still burning at the front of the stage, and Nireno’s quiet signalling of the end of the scene make a fitting conclusion to the act.
The production has been subjected to the now almost mandatory updating process, with the Romans dressed at the outset in scarlet fatigues and desert boots. On Cleopatra’s first appearance she sports a braided afro hairstyle, later changing when disguised as ‘Lidia’ into a hairstyle more in keeping with Cesare’s praise of her hair (E la tua chioma i cori: Your tresses enslave men’s hearts). She also sports a pair of designer shades, which Handel’s librettist seems inexplicably to have left out of Cesare’s otherwise fulsome description of her appearance:
Non è sì vago e bello
il fior nel prato,
quant’è vago e gentile
il tuo bel volto.
D’un fiore il pregio a quello
solo vien dato,
ma tutto un vago aprile
è in te raccolto.
[The flower in the meadow is not so beautiful or so fair as the loveliness and nobility of your beauteous face. Its worth can be compared only to the loveliness of a flower, but the whole of a fair April is combined in you.]
Later changes of costume bring us back full circle: on their first appearance, she and Tolomeo sported identical white outfits; in the battle scene they wear identical black-leather. Otherwise the Egyptians are in a bizarre mix of traditional and modern dress: Achilla sports a fatigue top over an Egyptian skirt and Tolomeo wears a long, open animal-print jacket over a similar skirt. The least appropriate up-dating is that of Sesto, who appears in a dark-grey lounge suit and school tie. It could be a great deal worse, but why do it at all? Perhaps the producer wanted to update one degree further than the Christie version, where the Romans wear 19th-century British uniforms and the Egyptians Ottoman Turkish.
Michael Maniaci’s excellent singing as Nireno is spoiled by the unconvincing latex ‘bald’ head which wrinkles in a most improbable fashion. Even less convincing is Cleopatra’s baldness when Tolomeo whips off her red wig, the latest in a series of hair styles, after the battle – unlike the famous Morecambe and Wise joke, you really can see the join, even when she again appears wearing her crowning glory in the finale.
As on the Hickox DVD version, also produced by Negrin, the role of Nireno is expanded into that of a master of ceremonies. This works quite well but it does mean a significant alteration at the point where the overture changes into a chorus of welcome. This innovative chorus was originally meant to signify the crowd’s welcome of Cesare, presumably sung by the principals offstage, as Winton Dean explains in his excellent notes in the booklet. Here the principals appear on stage one by one as if at Nireno’s behest, with Cesare and Curio entering behind them.
Some of the stage business is effective, as when the spirit of Pompey appears, first to Cornelia and Sesto, then to Cesare, and finally again to Sesto. The entertainment-within-an-entertainment at the start of Act II is very well managed and the appearance on stage of the solo violinist in Cesare’s aria Se in fiorito ameno prato is particularly effective – the Double Concerto for voice and violin that Vivaldi somehow never got round to writing.
But there are too many examples of stage business which I found distracting: Cleopatra vying with Tolomeo on a portable staircase and some silly business with Cesare and Tolomeo raising and lowering their chairs. When Tolomeo’s chair sinks below the ground, it gets a laugh and a round of applause, but this is, after all, opera seria, not opera buffa. Cesare’s aria at Pompey’s tomb is rather spoiled by having vandals in the background painting ‘Tolomeo’ graffiti on the tomb, which also obtrudes on the visit of Cornelia and Sesto to the tomb – two serious scenes unnecessarily diminished.
The Damien Hirst pickled shark in Act II also raised a laugh at the wrong moment, just as we are about to empathise with the imprisoned Cornelia.
Sesto’s slaying of Tolomeo is handled with commendably few histrionics: the subsequent stage-business as Cornelia and Nireno robe Sesto in a purple toga in no way detracts from Stene’s excellent rendition of Cornelia’s aria, Non hai più temere.
The same stairs that were used for Cleopatra’s entertainment in Act II now serve at the end of Act III, the coronation scene, as the stairs leading to the throne of Egypt. The ballet with Nireno and his ‘double’(danced by Khalid el Awad) as the celebratory orchestral music is played is an excellent touch, but the entry of the heavily-bloodstained Sesto and the gory bundle containing the head of Tolomeo is gratuitous.
Otherwise there is a minimum of stage business as first the duet of Cesare and Cleopatra (Cara più amabile beltà) and then the final chorus with duet (Ritorna omai in nostro core) crowns the opera. Here, as elsewhere, Scholl’s and Dam-Jensen’s voices blend beautifully and the final line-up of the principals on the stairs to sing the chorus is beautifully choreographed. The final applause is very well deserved.
On a wide screen with HDMI up-scaling, the picture is excellent; in 4:3 format, some of the stage business is lost. The sound is very good when heard through a normal television but benefits greatly from reproduction through an audio setup, with excellent tonal range and breadth, though with a slightly shallow sound-stage when heard in stereo.
The subtitles provide the original Italian text or an English, French or German translation and they are as unobtrusive as they can be. I wonder if it would be too difficult to be able to choose simultaneously the original and a translation for those like me whose Italian is good but not perfect? Subtitles are fine when watching the opera, but I sometimes like to play opera DVDs without picture via my audio system. For those similarly inclined, you will need to find a libretto online. various websites offer copies of the libretto: Karadar is always a good place to look for any libretto – follow the hyperlink to the Giulio Cesare libretto, which can be printed out and used in conjunction with the detailed synopsis in the booklet.
The chapter-divisions are rather few – nine for Act I, 15 for II and III, an average of just under ten minutes each – but then who wants to keep skipping backwards and forwards?
The DVDs come in a gatefold cardboard case inside a plastic slipcase, which seems to be the current fashion – the latest Harry Potter DVDs come in a similar arrangement. Sliding the inner gatefold in and out of the slipcase has already abraded the upper and lower margins and I foresee that the cardboard will soon tear. There must be a better arrangement.
Despite my minor quibbles, this is probably the best DVD version of Giulio Cesare and one of the best versions of this much-recorded opera in any format. I shall be surprised if I receive as clearly-deserving a Recording of the Month on CD or DVD for some time. Paul Shoemaker strongly recommended the Hickox version (Euroarts 2053599) also on 2 DVDs. Kirk McElhearn recommended the Glyndebourne/Christie version (Opus Arte OA 0950 D) albeit a trifle less enthusiastically – one senses that he would have preferred this version in CD format. Others have recommended this Christie version more wholeheartedly, but it does run to an uneconomical three CDs. All the CD versions run to three or even four discs, but the excellent Harmonia Mundi version under René Jacobs compensates by being offered at bargain price (HMX290 1385.7 or HMC90 1385.7).
Designer: Anthony Baker
Lighting: Allen Hahn
Choreographer: Ana Yepes
Picture format NTSC 16:9. Sound 5.0 DTS/PCM Stereo 2.0. All regions.
Booklet with notes and synopsis in English, French and German.
Subtitles in Italian (original), English, French and German.