HANDEL: Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Blu-ray (2016) – Decca

by | Jul 10, 2016 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

This fascinating long opera is worth seeing at least twice.

HANDEL: Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Blu-ray (2016)

Cast: Andreas Scholl, Cecilia Bartoli, Anne Sofie von Otter, Philippe Jaroussky
Director: Olivier Simonnet
Studio: Decca [5/20/16]
Video: 1.77:1 Color, for 16:9 screens
Audio: DTS-HD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, French
Length: 242 minutes
Ratings: Audio: ***** Video: **** ½

If you want to pick a baroque opera with which to spend four hours, you probably couldn’t do much better than Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. It’s got recognizable historical characters, stirring arias, lots of blood & thunder & sex, and at least twenty awful predicaments. The ingredients are here for a diverting evening’s entertainment. It wasn’t always that way. In the bel-canto-obsessed sixties it was consigned to “concert opera” status. (“Just stand and sing, don’t bother acting.”) The masters of culture could not divine its dramatic potential. But then, they also foisted Fabian and Connie Francis on us and we didn’t notice. Happily, productions like 2012’s Salzburg Whitsun Festival took it on and did a decent job with it. For the most part.

Of course, the big plus here is Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra. She’s already been a queen for over a decade, Queen Mezzo of the Baroque. She’s celebrated the forgotten (The Vivaldi Album of 1999, Vivaldi’s vocal side), the neglected (Mission, music of Agostino Steffani [1654 – 728] of 2012) and even the hapless castrato (Sacrificium of 2009). Her grasp of theatrics and audio pyrotechnics is better than anyone since Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price. She completely consumes any scene she’s in and is impossible to upstage. Giulio Cesare in Egitto is no exception. In the tender aria “V’adoro pupille” she is Caesar’s fantasy lover, not yet revealed as Cleopatra, and expresses her feelings beguilingly over muted strings. Then she takes off in a stage-prop rocket ship, a metaphor as much about Bartoli’s career as about Cleopatra’s effect on Caesar.

Other singers also fare very well in this production. The dedicated and intense soprano Anne Sofie von Otter puts in an excellent performance as the long-suffering Cornelia, widow to Pompey, a man done in by the dastardly Ptolemy XIII, sung reproachably by Christophe Dumaux. In arias like “Non ha più che temere quest’alma vendicata,” she gloats triumphantly when her son Sextus kills Ptolemy. Countertenors Andreas Scholl (Caesar) and Philippe Jaroussky (Sextus) both do well in it, Scholl being more of a dramatic countertenor than the lyrical Jaroussky so you can tell them apart. I wish Handel had displayed a better sense of pacing and cut down the scenes between Cornelia and Sextus. Even though they eloquent convey sorrow and despair, it’s mostly adagio sorrow, so your mind may wander. Still, Handel has many tricks up his white linen sleeves. In Cleopatra’s “Piangerò la sorte mia” the imprisoned queen sings dolefully about her fate. After a few minutes, she suddenly erupts into an allegro curse about how, when dead, she will return to haunt her treacherous brother. Then she recapitulates her sad moans. It’s wonderful, worth a replay. Caesar’s “Al lampo dell’armi” is sung as he’s rushing out to fight Ptolemy’s soldiers. As a call to action, it is as thrilling and decisive as the cabaletta “Di quella pira” from Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi.

I commend the staging for its modern setting in the war-torn Mideast. Ptolemy is likely a metaphor for Muammar Gaddafi, and there are backdrop videos of falling missiles, flashing explosions, and balletic butchery. And while the designers push all the buttons to create this effect, they lean on a few a bit too long. The louche Ptolemy is portrayed in simulated rape and masturbates while lasciviously viewing a porn mag. (This, in an opera with no nudity.) Okay, we get it! He’s a baddie. Plus, there’s a huge rubber alligator onstage, twice (in a land with only crocodiles)! The hints of incest between Cornelia and Sextus are not only ahistorical, but irrelevant to the opera. The modern warfare mise en scène is clever, but some of the surreal fancies of Mssrs. Leiser and Caurier just don’t work. Bartoli singing “Piangerò la sorte mia” with a bag over her head is on the same level as John Lennon shoveling spaghetti onto a table in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967).

Still, this fascinating long opera is worth seeing at least twice. The audio is excellent for a live performance, thanks to judicious use of concealed RF mikes. (I wish they’d filtered out those silly audience reactions. Cleopatra’s tender aria “Se pietà di me non senti” is nearly ruined by some dolt yelling “Gigante!”) Keep the booklet at hand. You’ll want to find and show your favorite cuts to friends still lukewarm on baroque opera.

— Peter Bates

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