Handel’s Julius Caesar

Giulio Cesare in Egitto [semi-staged; sung in Italian]

Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Caesar – Sarah Connolly
Cornelia – Patricia Bardon
Sextus – Angelika Kirchschlager
Curius – Alexander Ashworth

Cleopatra – Danielle de Niese
Ptolemy – Christophe Dumaux
Nirenus – Rachid ben Abdeslam
Achillas – Christopher Maltman

Sirena Tocco
Irene Hardy
Hatim Kamel
Trevor Goldstein
Benjamin Timothy
Ted Sikström

Nadja Zwiener (onstage violin)

Glyndebourne Festival Chorus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
William Christie

David McVicar – director
Brigitte Reiffenstuel – costume designer
Andrew George – movement director
Nicholas Hall – fight director

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 23 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Something for everyone in this Broadway-to-Bollywood, all-singing, all-dancing “Giulio Cesare” direct from Glyndebourne? Well, almost. Once you get past the colonial India costumes, excessive choreographic demands on the vocalists and campy humour (which seems to be de rigeur in opera these days), what remains are superlative orchestral playing, utterly fluent conducting from William Christie and some fairly uneven singing (ranging from the phenomenal to the feeble).

Sarah Connolly (Caesar), strangely resembling Lord Nelson much of the time in an overcoat festooned with medals and knee-length boots, was largely impressive. Hers is not a large voice, but she makes up for the lack of power with superb control and an evenness from top to bottom. Her mastery of Baroque ornamentation is enviable, and was very much in evidence, not least in the charming “Se in fiorito ameno prato”, where both she and the obbligato violin echoed each other’s elaborations with wit and subtlety – full marks to violinist Nadja Zwiener as well for not overdoing the comic turn.

Danielle de Niese brought all her talents to bear on her characterisation of Cleopatra, using a combination of humour, dancing and powerful singing to bring out the seductive, scheming qualities while still emphasising Cleopatra’s tenderness and sense of outrage. Her ‘big number’ “Da tempeste il legno infranto” brought the house down. Ultimately, though, her singing would have benefited from less dancing and more concentration on expressive delivery. One couldn’t but feel a certain superficiality at times.

The rest of the cast proved to be a mixed bag. Patricia Bardon as Cornelia was wonderful, her rich, full mezzo coping easily with the large acoustic. Angelika Kirchschlager was vocally brilliant but was afflicted by a bad case of over-acting. Chrisopher Maltman, looking very much the ‘bovver boy’ with his muscular frame and shaved head, was ideal as the nasty Achillas, while Alexander Ashworth enacted the relatively minor baritone part of Curius with admirable restraint. The two counter-tenors, Rachid ben Abdeslam and Christophe Dumaux were less compelling, playing the camp card to the nth degree – to the detriment of their voices, which sounded underpowered and lacking in colour most of the time. Histrionics are no substitute for good singing.

As mentioned above, the orchestral playing was faultless (except perhaps for some intonation problems with the fiendishly difficult natural horns – but their beautiful timbre more than compensated). Christie bridged the gap between singers and performers with his usual elegance and cheeky humour. Not to mention supreme musicianship. I’d hate to think that he had any hand in some of the sillier goings-on.

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