May the good Lord spare us from these kinds of inanities.

HANDEL: Giulio Cesare (complete opera) (2016)

Performers: Cecilia Bartoli (Cleopatra)/ Andreas Scholl (Cesare)/ Philippe Jaroussky (Sesto)/ Anne Sofie von Otter (Cornelia)/ Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo)/ Ruben Drole (Achilla)/ Jochen Kowalski (Nireno)/ Peter Kálmán (Curio)/ Il Giardino Armonico/ Giovanni Antonini
Directors: Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier
Studio: Decca 074 3856 2016 (5/20/16)
Video: 16:9 color
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo, DTS 5.1
Subtitles: German, English, French
No region code
Length: 249 min.
Rating: **

Why some critics salivate over this kind of nonsense is beyond me. Opera Today called this 2012 production, the first of Cecilia Bartoli’s tenure as Artistic Director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, a “dynamite new production”. Really? Do we need to see Bartoli, dressed as a cheap Clockwork Orange type prostitute, riding a rocket off into the air while singing an aria? Or performing “Piangerò la sorte mia” on her knees with hands bound and a bag over her head? Or watch an immensely disgusting Tolomeo masturbate while looking at pornographic pictures?

I’m no puritan, but I do insist on intelligence in opera, and directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier deserve some kind of award for displaying absolutely none here. The vague militaristic theme that runs through this concept has absolutely nothing to do in any concrete manner with the action found in the libretto. If anything, their concept manifests a genuine disdain for the inherent strengths of one of the greatest operas ever written.

The cast, chosen by Bartoli, supposedly represents a “dream cast” for this work. There is no question that it is very good indeed. In fact, this video was supposed to be released four years ago, and the CD already available—which it is not.  So the only relics of this event that we have are present in this DVD. Bartoli is still a marvel—I’m a big fan, and her technical wizardry is simply remarkable. Yet—and it pains me to admit it—it feels to me that in this opera she is so concentrated on the perfection of the execution that much of the emotive spirit—and there’s lots of it in this opera—is lost. It doesn’t mean that it’s not moving, just not as moving as I had hoped. Listening to a far less accomplished singer—though still highly skilled—as Danielle De Niese in the Glyndebourne video, Handel’s intent and his emotion come across far more persuasively.

Cornelia and Sesto are performed by seasoned sensation Anne Sofie von Otter and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who executes his role very well. Tolomeo—in a characterization that must have been painful to perform, a disgusting punk – is rendered to purgatorial perfection by countertenor Christophe Dumaux. Scholl’s Cesare is a known quantity now, and he sings wonderfully, though a better vehicle is the Danish video with Inger Dam-Jennsen. The rest of the cast is uniformly good, and I pray that a CD of this will be released soon. As it stands, despite the fine sound and excellent singing, this monstrosity simply can’t be tolerated while maintaining any sense of good taste.

—Steven Ritter