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Handel Giulio Cesare (in Egitto)

 

Recorded at Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona , July 2004

TDK DVWW - OPGCES

2 DVDs 216 minutes

Conductor Michael Hofstetter

Stage Director, Set & Costume Design Herbert Wernicke

TV Director Toni Bargalo

Lighting Design Hermann Munzer

 

Giulio Cesare Flavio Oliver

Curio David Menendez

Cornelia Ewa Podles

Sesto Maite Beaumont

Cleopatra Elena de la Merced

Tolomeo Jordi Domenech

Achilla Oliver Zwarg

Ni reno Itxaro Mentxaka

Coccodrillo Hector Manzanare

The unvarnished historical basis for this drama can be told in a few lines. Following his army's defeat by Caesar at the battle of Pharsalus, Pompey fled to Egypt and sought asylum at the court of Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra VII. His sixth wife (Cornelia Metella) and son from an earlier marriage (Sextus Pompeius) accompanied him. Caesar subsequently travelled to Egypt and on his arrival Ptolemy presented him with Pompey's head: a gift that was received with revulsion. Cleopatra was more successful in winning Caesar's friendship and love, and the Roman soldiers joined with her supporters to oust Ptolemy and install her as sole ruler of Egypt .

Cleopatra seems immediately to have captured popular opinion as a romantic figure, and by the time Handel wrote this opera in 1723-24 the story had been amply embroidered. This production certainly inhabits a world of fantasy not history and at times falls only just short of parody. The cast is augmented by a life size crocodile ( played by Hector Manzanares), sometimes playful, but always menacing, and the Roman troops disguise themselves as giant molluscs. We also see rather more of Pompey's severed head than one might wish (fortunately it is not all lifelike in close up) and at intervals the chorus bring on caption boards, never shown in camera close up so somewhat of a puzzle.

A dark stone almost fills the stage onto which characters must climb, and a mirror which closes in as the mood intensifies is suspended above. The scenery consists of a flat-pack version of the Rosetta Stone carried on by attendants and assembled in a variety of configurations, including a sort of maze. Costumes range from a conventional Roman cloak and laurel wreath for Caesar to contemporary wear for the chorus. I liked the patterned fabrics used for Cleopatra's and Cornelia's dresses which very subtly imitate the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta stone. Herman Munzer's lighting is a tour de force.

Herbert Wernicke's direction is intelligent, rich and varied in imagery, and full of dramatic intensity. He draws full committed performances from his cast, most of whom are Spanish. Flavio Oliver takes the title role. He may lack the gravitas of a 50 year old general, but when this opera was plotted no one was counting the years. Matched with the glorious Elena del la Merced (Cleopatra) they look every inch the golden couple of their day, and meet all the musical demands of Handel's richly ornamented score. Ptolemy, a dangerously unbalanced depot, is brilliantly portrayed by Catalan counter-tenor Jordi Domenech, with his voice skilfully shaded to reflect the capricious malice of the character. Ewa Podles brings dignity to the role of the widowed Cornelia. Her voice is not innately beautiful, but it is has apparently limitless power and depth, and her grief is almost unbearable. However, the most arresting singing in the piece comes from relative newcomer, Maite Beaumont , as Pompey's enraged son, Sextus. Her lovely mezzo voice has an individuality of tone that immediately captures attention, and she executes her big arias with sincerity and fearless bravado.

The chorus sing lustily on the few occasions when they get the chance, and the orchestra responds energetically to Michael Hofstetter's conducting.

Serena Fenwick

picture photo credit Antoni Bofill