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Monday, 29 April 2013


Opera is a parallel universe. Any expectations of realism have to be left at the door. It is fundamentally a fantasy world where normal rules do not apply.

Apart from the fact that characters on stage semi-sing their lines, and then break out into full song every five or ten minutes, there are a multitude of things that are difficult to take seriously. The forty or fifty year old soprano playing a young princess, the terrible stunts and fight scenes, the dodgy acting and the fluid gender roles.

In this opera, Handel's Giulio Cesare, (Julius Caesar), the genders are all over the place. Sesto, Pompey's son, is a trouser role, and so a female mezzo-soprano plays the male role.

Also, the parts of Caesar and Tolomeo were originally written for castrati. Handel used a lot of these singers - who had been castrated before puberty and so who had kept their boyish high voices - in the eighteenth century when there were a lot available. Now there are no more castrati, of course, and so these roles are normally taken by counter-tenors.

Counter-tenors are male singers who sing in a range equivalent to a mezzo-soprano. In other words, when they sing they sound a little like a woman.

So we have the sight of Caesar, played by David Daniels, a large, tall, bearded man, producing a sound more commonly formed by singers in dresses. Caesar, conqueror of Rome, Europe and Egypt, emperor of Rome, lover of many women, sings in a falsetto.

This just adds to the sense of strangeness of the whole experience. I recently saw the Met Live production of the opera, performed in The Metropolitan Opera House in New York and beamed live to cinemas world wide.

The director, David McVicar, chose to play with the setting of the opera. The story is based in Egypt, when Julius Caesar goes there to defeat his enemy, Pompey. Yet in this production the Romans are dressed as British colonial soldiers, in kilts and red great coats, and there is a sense of the 1920s about the whole thing, with Cleopatra and her entourage dressing as flappers, doing the Charleston.

Some opera directors do this, play with the setting and chronology of works, as a matter of course, they feel that they have to do something to spice up the repertoire. But here to me it felt unnecessary, the whole clash between Romans and Egyptians is interesting enough already, with enough scope for innovation of costume and design. The transplanting of the story to the early twentieth century seemed to be a little pointless.

What does work a little better though, is that the production is played for laughs. Opera is fundamentally ridiculous anyway, and so any production that manages not to take itself too seriously is liable to work better than those po-faced performances.

The action alternates between high drama and tragedy on the one hand, and hilarity and slapstick on the other. Somehow the humour manages to dilute the self-importance that can often invade opera productions, and so stops it becoming over-earnest.

Natalie Dessay plays Cleopatra. I wasn't convinced by her initially, there was something too watered down with her, something missing. I had seen Giulio Cesare before, with Daniele di Niese in the role of Cleopatra, and she had all the sensuality and seductiveness you would expect from a queen, and goddess, of ancient Egypt.

Natalie Dessay lacks this sensuality, but does put her own stamp on the role. She won me over. As mentioned above, she plays it for laughs, dances, has fun with the character. And her voice is impeccable, pure, sweet, flawless.

And in the end it is the music that is the reason to see opera. Handel's music is irresistible, the melodies are gorgeous and the sound from the orchestra dense and pure. It is joyous in parts, it makes you feel good.

The opera lasts - with two intervals - almost five hours. A lot of this is down to the interminable arias that go on and on and on, five, ten minutes, maybe more, a trademark of Handel. Yet the time doesn't drag, the action and the music and song, and the whole atmosphere of the piece are so enjoyable that there is no sense of attending some kind of massive, Wagner-like epic.

If you are prepared to buy into the strangeness of the whole operatic project, then Giulio Cesare is impossible to dislike. 

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