Handel’s Giulio Cesare at Lyric Opera, 2007-2008 Season

Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra in Handel's Julius Caesar in Egypt
Last night we attended the opening night performance at Lyric Opera of Frederic Handel’s 1824 opera, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Julius Caesar in Egypt. The production was extraordinary in a number of ways. The opera was conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, the first woman ever to conduct an opera at Lyric. She did an exceptional job, coaxing a creditable performance from the Lyric Opera orchestra while restraining them enough so that the singers could be heard past the orchestra pit (sometimes a problem at Lyric).

The production featured three countertenors, to the best of my knowledge and recollection the largest number ever to appear in a single Lyric production. David Daniels, one of the foremost if not the foremost practitioner of the countertenor voice performing today, sang Julius Caesar, one of his signature roles, while French countertenor Christophe Dumaux sang Ptolemy and American countertenor Gerald Thompson sang Nirenus. There was an additional countertenor role, Sextus, performed as a trouser role by Spanish mezzo Maite Beaumont who did a standout job.

And, most importantly to me, this was in my opinion the best-realized production that I’ve seen at Lyric in the 25-odd years I’ve had a season ticket.

The production we saw, with 2005 Glyndebourne sets, costumes, staging, and choreography had received considerable advance publicity. The staging by David McVicar was truly extraordinary, enhancing the action of the opera and rendering it considerably more acceptable to contemporary tastes than the typical static production. I had honestly never thought that I could think of a Handel opera as fun. I was wrong.

There aren’t enough superlatives for Danielle de Niese. The woman (pictured above as Cleopatra) is gorgeous, exotic as befits her Dutch and Indonesian parentage, and has a glorious voice which she has trained superbly for the highly ornamented singing called for by baroque opera. But most extraordinary of all is her energy level. Much of her role was not only sung but danced—something I would not have believed could be done. I’m not certain how to characterize the result—possibly Bollywood meets the Baroque?

2007 Julius CaesarHer Cleopatra was saucy and coquettish and a complete delight. At right Cleopatra is being inspected by Caesar and the troops.

This is such a good production that I encourage anyone who’s sincerely interested in opera and within striking distance to get to Lyric Opera to see it. However, I would advise three caveats. First, I know of productions of this opera that have been performed in two and half hours. Last night’s performance was four and a half hours. Handel employed the da capo aria form in his operas. In this form a theme or first section is stated and then followed by an intermediary section which, in turn, is followed by a repeat of the first section from the top (da capo). And so on, returning to the original section three, four, or more times. From two and half hours to four and a half hours is a lot of da capo’s.

Second, countertenor voice is not to everyone’s taste. As one of our longtime seating companions put it, this opera had three countertenors too many and that’s how quite a few people feel.

Third, in Act I there is a lengthy,wonderful duet between Julius Caesar and a horn. I recognize that horn is a difficult instrument and you’d have thought that in a company of Lyric’s caliber they’d have found a horn player capable of the solo. It was not to be. The Act II duet between Caesar and violin was fabulous and the choice of putting the violinist on stage a good one.

The reviews

John von Rhein calls it much as I did:

Don’t let the prospect of sitting through a lengthy parade of da capo (repeated) arias stop you from catching this show. In most Baroque operas, these florid showpieces hold up the dramatic action while the singers strut their virtuosic stuff. Here, they actually advance the plot and shed revealing light on Handel’s complex dramatic characterizations.

Indeed, David McVicar’s production captures the Handelian spirit in modern theatrical terms that Glyndebourne audiences quite obviously adored.

Think of Bollywood-style dance numbers, English colonial pith helmets, 1920s flapper wigs, a fey Egyptian king clad in belly dancer pants and a bath-to-bed routine to accompany Cleopatra’s spectacular Act 2 showpiece, sung by soprano Danielle de Niese’s super-sexy Cleopatra.

It’s all there in McVicar’s lavish, eye-filling staging, which honors the wit and seriousness of Handel’s original while never forgetting why most people went to the opera back in his day, and why they have kept going to the opera ever since — to be entertained.

I swear I did not read John von Rhein’s review before writing my commentary.

Handicapping the season so far: Julius Caesar, La Traviata. Advantage Julius Caesar.

10 comments… add one
  • Teresa Link

    Concur with your overall impression on this staging. My first time at Lyric (out of towner), and came only for ‘Giulio Cesare’. Can’t help comparing this to the original Glyndebourne production on DVD. My unsolicited opinions: I thought Sarah Connolly did a superior job to Daniels myself with her powerful stage presence and chemistry with co-stars, although Maite Beaumont bested Angelika Kirchschlager from the original cast. Nireno’s (Thompson’s) voice cracked for a very brief moment in his funny aria, but still gave a most amusing show. Achilla here (I forget his name) slightly better vocally than but dramatically equal to Chris Maltman, and Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) still very moving. Christophe Dumaux retained Tolomeo’s tantrumy madness with aplomb. Fabulous show all around, but I still wished Sarah Connolly was Cesare.

  • I saw Julius Ceasar on opening night, and found it absolutely spectacular and delightful. My caveat is that four and a half hours is too long for this kind of opera in this day and age. I figure there must be about 32 da capo arias in this work. The repeat of the A section should be cut in long da capo arias. And, believe it or not, I’m a musicologist.

    Howard Slenk

  • Being a former lyric soprano before becoming an astrologer I must say I’m still up in the stars from tonight’s performance. Danielle is beautiful vocally and visually. Ah, if I could have sung like her I would have remained a lyric soprano. Countertenor David Daniels was perfect for Julius Caesar. Some may argue that females can sing the role, but for me it makes the relationships unbelievable. With Daniels superb musical lines and chemistry between Danielle just gave me chills at times through the performance. I was absolutely thrilled by all the countertenors on stage. I just get all hot and bothered by countertenors voices. There’s a vulnerability to it. In Handel’s time men sang all the roles and think that would have posed a problem in my mind having a male sing Cleopatra. Nope. Can’t have it. Yes, 4 1/2 hours is a wee bit too long unless you’re in the boxes or in the less crowded sections during the week where you can kick your feet up on the empty seats in front of you. I love all the modern interpretations by the stage director. Humor in music by Handel? It can bring the masses clammoring back to the opera. I think I can persuade my friend, former vietnam marine to attend by pointing out the modern humor and Danielle’s sexy, coquetish, moving and funny style all in 1 performance. I give it 4 intense Scorpio Stars!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • My Caveat. Before I get roasted by knowing musicologists, let me amend my posting above. The repeated A section of a Da Capo aria cannot be cut, for reasons of key relationship. I used the wrong verb, which should have been “shortened” instead of “cut.” And only in the very long ones, please.

  • Before I get roasted by knowing musicologists, let me amend my posting above. The repeated A section of a Da Capo aria cannot be cut, for reasons of key relationship. I used the wrong verb, which should have been “shortened” instead of “cut.” And only in the very long ones, please.

  • John Duffus Link

    I also came from out of town – from Thailand, in fact – just for this production, and it was worth every minute of its four and a half hours. I adore the music but had never seen a production before, and I opted for the Lyric’s Glyndebourne re-staging in preference to a few others on offer this year. I cannot agree with the comments about reducing the da capo arias, nor the presence of 3 counter-tenors, especially when they were as excellent as those on stage. This was a thrilling, luscious, exhilarating performance, led with extraordinary skill by Emanuelle Hain, and made more special by David McVicar’s stunning staging. True, I was initially slightly surprised by the slow-motion fez-wearing ‘supers’ during the overture and the portrayal of the Romans as late 19th century English colonials. But it all fell wonderfully into place and I left the theatre with so many superb moments etched indelibly in my memory. Who could forget the extraordinary poignancy of the Cornelia/Sesto duet at the end of Act 1, the Caesar/Ptolemy ‘dance’ (the horn played superbly on the 28th) from the same act, and throughout the evening the amazing artistry of Danielle de Niese? A wonderful evening!

  • c.talbot Link

    Sarah Connolly is reprising Giulio Cesare at the 2009 Glyndebourne Festival with Danielle and Pat Bardon and Christoph Dumeaux.

  • Ann Jackson Link

    David Daniels’ voice will never be big enough to fill the Lyric Opera hall, which is unfortunate, because his musicianship is quite wonderful. I thought the other 2 counter tenors and the mezzo in the pants role all had superior voices for the barn-like Lyric.

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