HANDEL: Giulio Cesare (complete opera) (2007)
Andreas Scholl (Giulio Cesare)/ Inger Dam-Jensen (Cleopatra)/ Randi Stene (Conrnelia)/ Tuva Semmingsen (Sesto)/ Christopher Robson (Tolomeo)/ John Lundgren (Curio)/ Palle Knudsen (Achilla)/ Michael Maniaci (Nireno)/ Concerto Copenhagen/ Lars Ulrik Mortensen, conductor
Directed by Francisco Negrin
Studio: Harmonia mundi HMD 9909008.09
Video: 16:9 color
Audio: DTS 5.0; PCM Stereo 2.0
Length: 216 minutes
HANDEL: Giulio Cesare (complete opera) (2006)
Sarah Connolly (Giulio Cesare)/ Danielle De Niese (Cleopatra)/ Patricia Bardon (Cornelia)/ Angelika Kirchschlager (Sesto)/ Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo)/ Alexander Ashworth (Curio)/ Christopher Maltman (Achilla)/ Rachid Ben Abdeslam (Nireno)/ Glyndebourne Chorus/ Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/ William Christie, conductor
Directed by David McVicar
Studio: Opus Arte OA 0950 D [Distrib. by Naxos]
Video: anamorphic/enahnced for 16:9 color
Audio: DTS 5.0; PCM Stereo
Extras: Danielle de Niese and the Glyndebourne Experience; Entertainment is not a dirty word
Length: 305 minutes
We are definitely in something of a Handel singing golden age! Who needs any stinkin’ castratos! As the vocal pyrotechnics on these two DVDs demonstrate, the glorious Mr. Handel is being as well-served today as he has ever been.
If you look at the difference between asterisk totals, you should be informed that the slighted version (Harmonia mundi) is going to be due almost solely to an erratic and rather spastic production. Both of these stretch the credulity of the historical story. The HM production features lots of military uniforms on Caesars’s legions with the Egyptians mostly sporting a sort of Star Trek baldness. The Glyndebourne production is set during the period where the British had taken over Egypt; hence the uniforms are period examples of that particular military dress with the Egyptians suitably middle-eastern looking, though with a bit of a modern twist. Seeing Cleopatra in a khaki pants suit is a little odd in Glyndebourne, whereas her look in the more nondescript HM setting, at least in the seductions scenes, is more to the point of her traditional image.
The orchestras are very similar in style, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment a fuller and perhaps more accurate band than their Danish counterparts, though this is not to slight the latter. The sound on both of these issues is wonderful, vibrant, and capturing a huge dynamic range.
Caesar is a rather barn-burning role, and while Andreas Scholl is almost machine-gun like in his phenomenal ability to spit out Handel’s many melismatic lines, the appearance of a man singing soprano is a little disconcerting to me. Perhaps I would have had some trouble in Handel’s time. But more to the point is his lack of genuine emotion in his acting. Compared to the unflappable Sarah Connelly at Glyndebourne, he is rather wooden and seeming to feel lost in the character’s emotional range, not knowing when to act what. Connelly on the other hand has long experience with these “trouser” roles, and it shows here, spanning a wide array of emotional situations and able to portray them better as a woman that Scholl can as a man. Her masculinity is quite stunning in its effect, and her singing beautifully proportional and even in the fast passages while sacrificing nothing to the more subdued arias as well.
The important dramatic role of Caesar’s friend Sesto is ably tackled in both productions, this time more realistically by the Copenhagen production’s Tuva Semmingsen, though Glyndebourne’s Angelika Kirchschlager is perhaps more dramatically attuned. Sesto’s mother Cornelia is pretty much a wash here; Patricia Bardon is more level headed in portrayal at Glyndebourne, though I think that Randi Stene sings the part with more affection, though she is a little overwrought in her characterization. One of the more egregious mistakes in casting takes place in Copenhagen with counter-tenor Christopher Robsen as Tolomeo, a much older man (he certainly was not historically), and though his portrayal is quite amusing, and even at one point lecherous (he gets naked into a shower while singing about young maidens, extremely funny but also disturbingly pedophiliac), the result is something almost grotesque. Christophe Dumaux is much younger and more serious in his depiction, and equally well-sung.
But this opera, despite the title, is really owned by Cleopatra. She gets all the best arias, and her character is the one that keeps the story alive with her various interactions among all the other characters. This is where the decisive factor lies, and this is where Glyndebourne wins out. It’s not that Inger Dam-Jensen is unsuccessful in the role—far from it, as her singing is radiant and completely convincing. Her seduction is partially nude as she steps into what looks like a hot tub, and otherwise she is sultry and very capable of playing Cleopatra. I have no problems with her at all and can easily say she stands as one of the top Cleos in the world at the moment. But with Glyndebourne we get 26-year old Danielle De Niese making her debut at that illustrious theater, and she brings a whole host of Los Angelesisms with her as well. Evidently De Niese has a dance background, and the producers decided to make use of it, incorporating Madonna-like dance choreography into the arias. It may seem a little silly at first, but is great fun and almost brings the house down several times. De Niese doesn’t sing these better than Dam-Jensen, but she does have a more powerful voice if some slight trouble on the trills. But she is a real actress, and this is what the other production is missing. In its entire mad conglomeration of design and sets, a certain point is absent that allows the audience to at least sense some sort of reality. Neither of these versions ground us completely, but the Glyndebourne is by far the more entertaining, and as this is primarily a visual medium and not just a recording, it scores points for that.
Both of these are then recommended—and this is one of the greatest operas you will ever hear—but if you can only afford one then Glyndebourne is the way to go.
— Steven Ritter