Handel’s ‘Giulio Cesare’ — ‘If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Fix It’

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He Came, He Saw, He Conquered

Sometimes, we bloggers have to eat our own words. This was the case last Saturday night when, after posting a piece about the Metropolitan Opera’s new 2013-2014 radio season, I mentioned in connection with the proposed revival of a Baroque pastiche entitled The Enchanted Island that I wasn’t exactly “into” Baroque opera.

David Daniels & Natalie Dessay (artsatl.com)
David Daniels & Natalie Dessay in Giulio Cesare (artsatl.com)

Wouldn’t you know it, but that very evening the PBS program Great Performances at the Met featured of all things (bite my tongue) George Frideric Handel’s 1724 masterpiece Giulio Cesare (“Julius Caesar”), one of the vocal and theatrical high points of that self-same Baroque era.

What’s a blogger to do? Well, eat crow for one. For another, get down to business and discuss, digest, research, and review the performance practice of the very thing one fears and dreads. Putting it plainly, in my 45+ years of listening to and enjoying opera and opera singing, I’ve heard just about anything and everything you can imagine that’s related to my favorite music genre. From serialism and minimalism, to modernism, pop-rock, verismo and bel canto, I’ve been in contact with a wide array of stylistic variations I never thought I’d be exposed to. It’s high time I tackled one I wasn’t all that familiar with.

To say I know nothing about Baroque opera is a bit of an overstatement. Back in my university days, I took a course that covered the history and background of opera quite extensively. Our teacher was a part-time vocal coach and pianist (as well as the school’s choir master) who sang and played excerpts of scenes and arias right in our classroom. One of the works he illustrated for us (via LP recording) was the New York City Opera’s 1966 production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare.

Of course, back then performances of Baroque opera were about as rare as thousand-dollar bills. Leave it to NYCO to crack the glass ceiling where that was concerned. They earned kudos from opera lovers for their extraordinary efforts in bringing this neglected masterwork to light. Then again, with a superb cast headed by Beverly Sills as Cleopatra, Norman Treigle as Julius Caesar, and such City Opera stalwarts as Maureen Forrester, Beverly Wolff, Michael Devlin, and Spiro Malas, conducted by the company’s long-time director Julius Rudel, how could it be otherwise? I was as impressed by Cleopatra’s vocal charms as Caesar must have been with her radiance.

George Frideric Handel, portrait by Thomas Hudson, 1756
George Frideric Handel, portrait by Thomas Hudson, 1756

It’s been many years since that historic production folded. And much has changed with respect to Baroque performance practice since that time — which is why I was bowled over by the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of Giulio Cesare. To begin with, this is a long opera. The first act alone takes over 90 minutes to perform, with the two remaining acts lasting just under an hour each. This would test the patience of most mortals, but I managed to stick with it for the duration. I was not disappointed.

Baroque opera has its particularities, among them something called aria da capo. Literally meaning “from the top,” the aria da capo form was prevalent primarily during the Baroque era. All da capo arias have three distinct sections labeled A-B-A. The opening “A” section sets the mood of the piece and is followed by a shorter, contrasting “B” section, after which the composer (Handel, in this instance) directs the singer to repeat the “A” section da capo, or “from the top.” No further note values or indications are written into the score. Composers assumed the singer knew what to do at this point, which was to embellish the repeat of the “A” section with flowery ornamentation, thus showing off the singer’s abilities not so much by “hogging” the spotlight as to bring out the aria’s emotional content.

This explains why Baroque operas in general take so long to get where they’re going. Every aria is performed in exactly the same manner: A-B-A, with a range of roulades, trills, fioriture, and other spectacular displays inserted to enliven the proceedings. Most of the characters involved in the story have at least one aria to share with audiences, while the main singers may have upwards of two, three, even four arias apiece — that’s quite a burden riding on an artist’s shoulders. The other operatic conventions we’ve come to expect, i.e., duets, trios, quartets, quintets, mighty choruses, and the like, are practically non-existent. Most Baroque operas begin with an overture or orchestral introduction, followed by an opening chorus, but more often than not there’s an introductory aria.

Natalie Dessay & Christophe Dumaux (minnesota.publicradio.org)
Natalie Dessay (Cleopatra) & Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo) in Giulio Cesare (minnesota.publicradio.org)

The plot, in most operas of the period, is advanced by interminable, monotonous-sounding recitatives (or “sung speech”) relating the specifics of the story line in excruciating detail. Arias, for the most part, are pauses in the advancement of the plot whereby individual characters get to reflect upon what they have learned from others via recitative.

In many respects, the aria in Baroque opera is comparable in theory to the soliloquy in Shakespeare. These vocal monologues are accompanied in typically banal fashion by hackneyed lyrics (the libretto is attributed to Nicola Francesco Haym), at times expanding upon platitudinous phrases along the lines of “A fool thinks himself wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool” or “In the land of the blind the man with one eye is king.” Numerous examples abound, but suffice it to say that the words of a Baroque aria are less pertinent to the plot than the way in which these outpourings are conveyed in song.

The most astonishing Baroque convention of all is, or rather was, the use of castrati for the principal male leads. As the name implies castrati were male singers who, as young boys, were “neutered,” shall we say, to prevent their voices from becoming lower than normal. This horrific practice, which gave the males much greater lung power and vocal range than their female counterparts, dwindled as the taste for Baroque opera itself diminished; it was finally outlawed in Italy in 1870. However, a major hurdle remained in that these same roles were written specifically with the higher male voice in mind. How to address that deficit?

A practical solution was reached several decades back when Baroque opera began to enjoy a well-deserved lease on life. The “back to Bach” movement and other advances along the early-music front (the annual Mostly Mozart Festival is a prime example) stressed the use of period instruments. Among other innovations, the education and employment of countertenors was of utmost importance. Alfred Deller, an English countertenor from the 1950s and 60s, was influential in popularizing Renaissance, Elizabethan, and Baroque music in their original form. His American counterpart, Russell Oberlin, did the same for us Yanks. Another British artist, James Bowman, created the role of Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which the Met will revive in the coming season.

In our day, the rise of the countertenor can be attributed to the presence of one man: American superstar David Daniels. For the past two decades, Daniels has stood apart from his predecessors and contemporaries for the supreme artistry he brings to whatever assignment he takes on. Earlier this year, he was given the Opera News Award for distinguished achievement in his field.

David Daniels (dailyherald.com)
David Daniels as Caesar with Pompey’s head (dailyherald.com)

At the time, Adam Wasserman, the magazine’s online editor, wrote the following in praise of his talent: “Prior to Daniels, the male falsetto seemed a malnourished, sickly-sweet instrument as notable for its musical inflexibility as for its dramatic unsuitability in staged opera. But here was an artist who, instead of resorting to wan vocal compromises in an attempt to imitate the effect of the castratos, seemed to offer a quantum leap forward: not only could the primo uomo [lead male] roles written by Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck and Monteverdi be performed beautifully by a man in a colorful, vibrant voice, without transposition, but modern audiences could witness a kind of emotional honesty and presence of which the composers themselves could only have dreamed.”

Daniels brought these qualities and more to his assumption of Giulio Cesare in the rebroadcast of an April 27 HD transmission. Co-starring with him were French soprano Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra, Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as the widow Cornelia, British mezzo Alice Coote in the “trouser” role of her son Sesto, French countertenor Christophe Dumaux as Cleopatra’s brother Tolomeo, Italian baritone Guido Loconsolo as Egyptian Army Commander Achilla, Moroccan countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam as the eunuch Nireno, and Iowan baritone John Moore as Roman Tribune Curio. Harry Pickett, a native of Liverpool, England, conducted the forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

This new production, which premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2005, is the work of Scottish theater director David McVicar. His version of Handel’s epic made its belated Met debut on April 4, 2013. As comfortable with standard repertory items (Il Trovatore, Salome, Tosca) as he is with more offbeat works (Billy Budd, Sweeney Todd), McVicar tends to dig deeper into his staging than most directors, eschewing the more traditional interpretation for original thought. Ergo, instead of setting the piece in Egypt as most directors would, McVicar places the action of his Giulio Cesare in “Jewel in the Crown” India, of all locations.

Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra (Met Opera)
Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra (Met Opera)

In fact, his outlandish take on “Bollywood meets latter-day British Raj,” with appropriate arm and head movements by choreographer Andrew George completely enhances the director’s view that Cleopatra and her retinue thoroughly delight in bhangra dancing and henna decorations. It’s fun, it’s lively, and very entertaining, as well as outrageously anachronistic — but damned if the concept works! I was utterly captivated by the sight of a flapper-bedecked Dessay (with arms flailing) kicking up her heals in time to Handel’s music. She even flicked her cigarette holder into the dead Pompey’s urn, a visual pun (“Ashes to ashes,” get it?).

As for the singing, the bonus of having the illustrious combination of Dessay with a red-coated Daniels reaped its own rewards. Both singers, along with the obsessed Sesto of mezzo Coote and his mournful mother Cornelia, elegantly interpreted by Bardon, outdid themselves. One sensed the added value of their lingering over those da capo arias. The audience was transfixed by the intense concentration and expressive commitment they gave to their respective roles.

Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) & Alice Coote (Sesto) wqxr.org
Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) & Alice Coote (Sesto) wqxr.org

After too many years in the operatic wilderness, I could finally understand what Baroque opera fans have long admired about this art form. All the singers, especially Abdeslam as the fleet-footed Nireno and a particularly repugnant pair of plotters in Tolomeo and Achilla, adeptly portrayed by Dumaux and Loconsolo, got their chance to shine. Tolomeo eventually gets his comeuppance at the hands of the vengeful Sesto; Cornelia succeeds in preserving her virtue after several attempts to rape her; while Caesar and Cleopatra proclaim their love for each other as he elevates her to the Egyptian throne, a happy ending for once.

All’s well that ends well, in McVicar’s treatment of his subject. It even put the kibosh to the old saying, “If it ain’t Baroque, don’t fix it.” To that we add: “Hooray for Bollywood!”

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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