Giulio Cesare Marijana Mijanovic
Cleopatra Veronica Cangemi
Cornelia Kristina Hammarström
Sesto Malena Ernman
Tolomeo Christophe Dumaux
Achilla Nicolas Rivenq
Nireno David Hansen
Curio Klemens Sander
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 19 April, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Three Handel operas down; one to go (“Amadigi di Gaula”, 18 May)…
The Barbican Centre’s Great Performer’s ‘Handelfest’ continued with aplomb when René Jacobs brought his “Freiburgers” (as, the programme tells us, they are “affectionately known”) for a concert performance of “Giulio Cesare”.
What the programme didn’t tell the audience, apart from a co-producer reference to the Theater an der Wien, is that this visit to London followed six staged performances at Vienna’s newly re-opened theatre, in a production by Christof Loy.
Why we’re kept in the dark about such matters baffles me. Given that the concert performance was actually a semi-staging (with all actions and some appropriate use of the area behind the orchestra, but without sets and costumes), the role of the director is important. It would also have been nice to have some photographs from the production (the first performance was 3 April, so plenty of time to get images to London before printing the programme), so we could get a clearer picture of what the Vienna production had looked like.
For the record, then, Loy’s team comprised Johannes Leiacker (set), Judith Weihrauch (costumes), Olaf Winter (lighting), Benjamin von Blomberg (dramaturge) and, perhaps most interestingly, projections by Evita Galanou, Ueli Nüesch and Thomas Wollenberger.
That is not to say there was anything found wanting at the Barbican Hall: this was a thrilling performance, where the interaction between characters transferred well from a stage setting to the concert hall. Jacobs conducted a vibrant reading of the score, with propulsive string tone, continuo sometimes being from harpsichord and sometimes from organ, with telling wind and – visually too – horns, who came and went as needed. Handel’s unflagging invention came alive and the cast made much of what was ideal accompaniment.
Curiously, Caesar really only tops and tails the story (save for the seduction scene in Act Two); Sesto and his mother Cornelia’s revenge on Tolomeo for the murder (beheading, even) of father and husband Pompey came into much stronger focus, at least in this performance. Long, blond, pony-tailed and athletic Malena Ernman brought a physical sense to Sesto’s revenge, tussling with somewhat smaller countertenor Christophe Dumaux as machiavellian Tolomeo (looking like Edward Norton, with his goatee) and despatching him with a break to the neck, leaving him spread-eagled at Jacobs’s feet.
Perhaps it would have been more accurate to call the opera ‘Cleopatra and Tolomeo’, given that the action is almost all to do with their rivalry. Dumaux was matched by Veronica Cangemi’s Cleopatra, resplendent in red and particularly alluring when she seduces Caesar in disguise as a maid (she could be just as devious as her brother). Loy keeps a reign on overt humour (Cangemi was less of a sex-kitten than Danielle De Niese in David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production) but, following Handel’s unerring sense of drama, was able to contrast the rollicking high spirits with the aching poignangcy with which, just like in “Ariodante”, he ends the first two acts.
Marijana Mijanovic was a distinctive Giulio Cesare, her angular facial features and somewhat contorted delivery style accompanied by gold frock coat (obviously her favoured garb for concert performances of the work – the photo in Mark Minkowski’s Archiv recording of the work, live from Vienna, sees her similarly dressed). Quite rightly she looked very pleased at the standing, cheering – and remaining – members of the audience: at 11.15. Perhaps, the performance should have begun at 6.30 rather than 7.