Giulio Cesare Opera in three acts
[Libretto by Niccolò Haym, after Giacomo Francesco Bussani’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto; sung in Italian with Met Titles in English by Sonya Friedman]
Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) David Daniels
Curio (Curius), tribune Trevor Scheunemann
Cornelia, widow of Pompey Patricia Bardon
Sesto (Sextus), son of Pompey Alice Coote
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt Ruth Ann Swenson
Tolomeo (Ptolemy), King of Egypt, Cleopatra’s brother Lawrence Zazzo
Achilla (Achillas) Wayne Tigges
Nireno (Nirenus), confidant of Cleopatra and Ptolemy Michael Maniaci
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Continuo: Harry Bicket (harpsichord), David Heiss (cello), James Daniel Swenberg (theorbo, lute & baroque guitar) & Linda Hall (harpsichord ripieno)
John Copley Producer
John Pascoe Set Designer
Michael Stennett Costume Designer
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 6 April, 2007
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City
“Giulio Cesare” (Julius Caesar) is among the most famous and frequently performed of Handel’s Italian operas. A tour de force of magnificent vocal writing and deft orchestral arrangements, it is perhaps his finest opera seria.
The story, set in 48 BC in Alexandria, then the capital of Egypt, focuses on the Julius Caesar’s arrival in Egypt, his first meeting with Cleopatra, then co-ruler if Egypt with her brother, the pharaoh Ptolemy, and her subsequent rise to power.
The opera was an immediate success when it was first performed in London in 1724, but like Handel’s other operatic works, it fell into oblivion in the nineteenth-century. In modern times, it is easily the most popular of Handel’s operas, with more than two hundred productions in many countries.
At its first performance in 1724, high voices dominated the stage, as they did in most Baroque operas. Cleopatra and Sextus were sopranos; Cornelia was a contralto; Caesar, Ptolemy and Nirenus were all alto castratos. Only Curius and Achillas were sung by basses. Beginning with the first twentieth-century revival in Göttingen, Germany in 1922, the castrato parts have usually been transposed down and sung by baritones or basses, but the more recent trend, over the past two decades, has been to preserve the original pitch and cast countertenors or women in the castrato roles.
This Metropolitan Opera production, the third revival of the staging borrowed almost intact from English National Opera in 1988 casts countertenors in the roles of Caesar and Ptolemy, and a male soprano in the role of Nirenus. This revival with David Daniels as Caesar also marks the first time the Met has cast a man in the title role. In earlier Met stagings, a mezzo sung the role: Tatiana Troyanos and Martine Dupuy in 1988, and Jennifer Larmore in 1999 and 2000.
The cast in this season’s first performance is uniformly splendid and matches the virtuosity that the opera demands. Alongside the charming countertenor David Daniels as Caesar, the parade of gorgeous voices was led by the captivating floridity of Ruth Ann Swenson as Cleopatra. Handel wrote music of surpassing beauty and penetration for both Caesar and Cleopatra (eight arias each), and all of it was magnificently performed on this occasion. Daniels, who made a highly acclaimed Met debut in the role of Sextus in the 1999 revival, has a truly remarkable voice, characterized by a marked vibrato and a magnificent coloratura. He was his most impressive as he voiced his disapproval of Pompey’s murder to Ptolemy in ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ in Act One, and in his third act aria, ‘Aure, deh per pietà’, when he appears alone by the sea after surviving a drowning attempt. Swenson sang the role of Cleopatra with uniformly beautiful tone and urgency. The many highpoints of her performance included the ravishingly seductive Act Two aria, ‘V’adoro pupille’, and the mournful ‘Piangerò’, sung as she is about to be led off to prison in Act Three.
This production brings a flood of company debuts: mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, male soprano Michael Maniaci, and baritone Trevor Scheunemann. The Dublin-born Patricia Bardon, stately and poignant as Pompey’s widow, brought an extraordinary range of vocal colors to her performance. Belfast-native Lawrence Zazzo was delightfully petulant as Ptolemy, and Americans Wayne Tigges and Michael Maniaci made impressive contributions.
The British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote rounded out the superb cast. As Sextus, she attacked Handel’s florid figuration with confidence, beginning with the heartfelt ‘Svegliatevi nel core’, the first act aria in which Sextus assures his mother that he will avenge his father’s death. There were many touching moments in this performance, but the most moving was the heartbreaking Act One duet ‘Son nata a lagrimar’, in which mother and son (Cornelia and Sextus) bemoan their cruel fate after they have been ordered off to separate confinement by Ptolemy.
Conductor Harry Bicket, a Handel specialist, drew a stylish and supple performance from the players of the Metropolitan Orchestra, conjuring magnificent sounds from a conventional orchestra sprinkled with a few original instruments.
John Copley’s direction is smooth and admirable, humorous in spots, but never distasteful. Michael Stennett’s costumes are an effective and eye-filling array of Elizabethan, Roman, Egyptian and other styles. John Pascoe’s gilded sets are appropriately exotic and grand. The scenery-flats failure to slide smoothly at a couple of points was not enough to mar what is a truly magnificent performance of Handel’s timeless, emotionally powerful music.
- Further performances are scheduled for April 10, 13, 17, 21, 24 and 27
- The performance on April 21 will be broadcast live on the Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network
- Metropolitan Opera