If you're new to the wild and wacky world of opera, you may blink twice when you start up Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Georg Frideric Handel's masterpiece of opera seria, and see one Sarah Connolly portraying the Roman emperor and love interest of Cleopatra (Danielle de Niese). Certainly a character of Julius Caesar's gravitas requires a bass or baritone of commanding profundity, right (or at the very least, a male)? Well, here's where a little music history comes in handy. Handel had a long professional collaboration with Italian castrato Senesino (Francesco Bernardi), and the role was originally sung by him. What with castrati becoming harder and harder to find in today's music world, Giulio Cesare's title role has been co-opted by a whole range of women, including mezzos like Connolly. (A revised version also transposes Caesar's range down to make it singable by tenors, baritones or basses). If you can get past the rather strange dichotomy of a high voice surging out of an iconic character like Julius Caesar, this oddly endearing production (on two BDs--this is not a short opera) is a good place for any new-to-opera tyro to start. It boasts an easily accessible harmonic palette, an easy to follow story, and, in this boisterous and bawdy staging by David McVicar, a lot to look at.
If you've seen any of the scores of movies featuring Caesar and Cleopatra, you're going to go into this opera at least knowing some of the basics, although Handel and librettist Nicola Francesco Haym go off on a number of tangents that never exactly made it into the history books. Cleopatra's royal sibling Ptolemy is pretty much the bad guy of this piece, plotting to kill Caesar as he also connives to take over as sole Egyptian pharaoh. Among elements that may not be quite so familiar to history buffs are a subplot concerning Pompey's widow Cornelia, and another sideline where Cleopatra dons a disguise to initially seduce Caesar.
This is an opera filled with unexpected voice casting, including countertenors in at least two major roles. Unfortunately Christophe Dumaux's Tolomeo (Ptolemy) is vocally one of the weaker links in the production, with virtually no projection and a wobbly vibrato that makes him sound like Bert Lahr's Wizard of Oz Cowardly Lion sped up to 78 rpm some of the time. He is wonderfully effusive in this over the top role, and does some astounding acrobatics (movement is incredibly important in this production, and in fact you may think you've wandered into some alternate universe Cirque du Soleil production at times), but his singing left me cold.
Luckily the rest of the cast is superb. Connolly is surprisingly effective in her role, but it's de Niese (whom filmgoers may remember from her cameo in Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of the Lambs) and especially mezzo Patricia Bardon as Cornelia who shine in this effort, bringing vocal mastery and performance nuance to their roles. De Niese is wonderfully flirty, almost like an Egyptian Carmen at times, and it's easy to believe her wiles completely overcome Caesar. Bardon has a mellifluously expressive voice that is both languid and incredibly forceful, bringing beautiful poignance to her portrayal.
Glyndebourne has become one of the most prestigious summer opera festivals in the world, and they do this production proud. Though McVicar reimagines several elements of the opera, no doubt to modernize it for today's audience, there's a sly, winking quality to it all that shouldn't offend purists too much. A lot of viewers may be surprised at how wackily funny Giulio Cesare is in this outing, and that's no doubt due to McVicar's lack of pretention in staging it. The period instruments of The Orchestra of the Enlightenment under the assured baton of William Christie are especially brilliant. Handel's heraldic brass writing, which will be familiar to even casual classical listeners due to the ubiquity of The Royal Fireworks, finds full flower in Giulio Cesare. If some of the recitative is less than inspired, it at the very least offers some unusual continuo accompaniment, notably by the theorbo, a relative of the lute.
This is a fun and frolicksome production that manages to play the dramatic scenes perfectly straight while having a good bit of sport in other bridging segments. Full of some beautiful costumes, and minimal though effective sets, Giulio Cesare in Egitto is just accessible enough not to scare away newcomers to opera, but more than challenging enough to satisfy longtime devotees of the art who want to hear technically difficult singing handled with ease.