Giulio Cesare

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Composer: George Frideric Handel

Libretto: Nicola Francesco Haym

based on Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Giacomo Bussani

First Produced: London, 1724

Present Company: Glyndebourne, 2005

Director: David McVicar

Set Designs: Robert Jones

Costumes: Brigitte Reiffensteul

Video Director: Robin Lough

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Conductor: William Christie


Giulio Cesare: Sarah Connolly

Cleopatra: Danielle de Niese

Cornelia: Patricia Bardon

Sesto: Angelika Kirchschlager

Tolomeo: Christophe Dumaux

Curio: Alexander Ashworth

Nireno: Rachid Ben Abdeslam

Achilla: Christopher Maltman



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50 x 2

Opera:  48.24 + 27.74 GB

Bit Rate: High (34-37 Mbps)

English PCM MA 5.0

English PCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, Italian, French, German & Spanish

Region: All

Opera runtime: 225 minutes

Opus Arte, 2009



Conception & Staging: A+

Costumes: A+

Casting: A+

Singing: A+

Orchestra: A+

Music Direction: A+

Video Direction: A

Image: A

Audio: B

Extras Features: A

Recommendation: A



Let’s face it: Handel’s Giulio Cesare, as with Baroque opera in general and opera seria in particular, is something of an acquired taste.  Once the epitome of fashion, the opera fell out of favor throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially in the U.S.  When San Francisco mounted a production in 1982 with Tatiana Troyanos, Valerie Masterson, Sarah Walker, Delia Wallace and James Bowman, suddenly Giulio Cesare was emperor once again.



Most people, I believe, think of Handel only as the composer of The Water Music (1717), Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) and Messiah (1742.) Messiah is an “Oratorio” - a sort of concert opera without staging on biblical texts - written to a text in English (after having first composed more than a few very successful works in Italian years earlier), and was all the rage in the latter part of his career in London.  Handel, by the way, was German by birth and beyond, settling permanently in England when he was 28, having followed his employer, the erstwhile Elector of Hanover, to England upon his promotion to become that country’s monarch: George I.  Curiously, Handel wrote comparatively little music to texts in German.  He was exceedingly popular with regular folk and highly esteemed by musicians and composers - famously, if posthumously, by Beethoven.  As Handel borrowed wholesale from other composers, so did later composers of him: Brahms, Giuliani, Schönberg and Percy Grainger, among them.  Handel’s grave and stately Sarabande from his D-Minor Suite HWV 437 was the piece not by Schubert that Kubrick used to great effect, if a little to excess, in Barry Lyndon.


Baroque opera seria, which Handel wrote in Italian and was popular in both England and the continent, is more melismatic than we are generally used to (Wagner had his way of writing endless melody, Handel had his), and - this may surprise you - far from effete or sterile, it is more passionately sung throughout, with the text’s implied emotional affect central to the performance. Perhaps the difficulty for listeners used to a diet of Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, even Wagner, is the length of time Handel remains fixed on a single melodically enhanced emotional state.  Even when there is contrasting music in the middle of an aria, Handel will return to whatever he started with for another go at the opening mood. More about this in a bit.



Handel and his librettist, Nicola Haym (who pretty much lifted his libretto from an earlier opera, Giulio Cesare in Egitto by one Giacomo Francesco Bussani), follow roughly the same outline that has been handed down from Seutonius and Plutarch, Shakespeare, Cecil B and Mr. Mankiewicz: Julius Caesar (Cesare) arrives in Egypt to find that Ptolomy (Tolomeo) has misjudged what would please his better by offering the general Pompei’s head. This goes down well with practically no-one and sets into motion the plot and the relative positions of the various adversaries. Cornelia, Pompei’s widow, grieves; her son, Sesto, consoles her and vows vengeance; Caesar is very put out and weighs his alternatives; Cleopatra sees this an opportunity to get in tight with Caesar and stick it to her brother, Tolomeo. Achilla, Ptomoly’s captain, sees the grieving widow as a pump without a handle and makes his move to install his one way or the other. Now, it would seem, Sesto has two targets for his rage. Cleopatra attempts to lure Caesar into an alliance with her against her brother - who, historical custom tells us, is also her husband (Did you know that?) - by posing as Lydia, handmaiden to Cleopatra. It’s a scheme that on paper shouldn’t have much of a chance, but thanks to her charms, which are evident, it plays better than hoped; and, as a bonus, it manages to bring on board the interests of Cornelia and Sesto.


In Act 2 an emboldened Tolomeo makes plans to attack Caesar’s army, which he outnumbers, and assassinate Caesar himself - or, rather, Achilla is to do the dirty work in exchange for assurances that his king will grant him Pompei’s widow as wife. He finds out later, that Tolomeo wants Cornelia for himself, an announcement that moves Achilla to switch sides - alas, too late for him. Meanwhile, news of the Roman general’s death being premature, Caesar, though wounded, makes his way back to Lydia, giving Cleopatra the chance to reveal her true identity - to his delight, as it happens. Caesar leads his army victoriously against Tolomeo, who is done in by an ever-opportunistic Sesto. In the end, the wicked are punished, regal lovers unite, a widow’s grief is quenched, her son relieved of duty, and the chorus and the entire cast pronounce that all is well with the world.



Glyndebourne is the rustic location for southern England’s finest opera house. In use for opera festivals since 1934, the auditorium off the main house was remodeled by the Christie family in time for the 1994 season, with seating for 1200 people.  Performances generally sell out. High-definition video recordings made at Glyndebourne are of the highest quality. When Opus Arte is involved, we expect and get top drawer video productions.

This was Glyndebourne’s first production of Giulio Cesare. The director for this production is David McVicar, a force of nature if ever there was. McVicar sets the action in Egypt, but an Egypt that looks suspiciously like India in the mid-eighteenth century at the height of the British raj, with the Romans in full British military dress. (Even the ships in the harbor are 17th or 18th century, at least to start with.) The red of their uniforms offers dazzling counterpoint to the deep blues, purples and blacks of the Egyptians.


To keep things moving along - and this is a long opera at nearly fours hours - McVicar executes scene changes during the closing bars of the arias when the singer has finished singing and Handel is winding up his music for the orchestra. It’s all very smooth with very few moments where we are left hanging while the actors take their new places, and only a couple spots where the curtain closes for a few seconds for a scene change. McVicar also alters the shape of the perceived proscenium, closing the frame somewhat for the more intimate scenes, using lighting and parts of the set to accomplish the task. Unlike the Met, Glyndebourne’s stage is not huge, so a great deal has to done with comparatively little. The stage here is never crowded, but then Handel and his librettist do not require it so. That said, there are moments, such as the entrance of the Romans, where we are aware of an unseen chorus.


This production is fairly complete and retains the original keys for the vocal parts, if not the actual voices (e.g. a soprano instead of a castrato sings the role of Cesare.) However, the opera is here divided into two acts instead of three, the first ending with Cleopatra imploring the gods to protect Caesar. And I agree. It is an emotionally powerful moment that cannot as effectively be followed by what would be yet another turning down of Achilla by Cornelia and declaration of rage and vow to kill Tolomeo by Sesto. It’s a 2 ½ hour sit for the audience, but having a second interval would make for a much longer evening. Ending Act 1 as they do gives Cleopatra’s plea a clearer foreshadowing of her feeling on hearing of the reported death of Caesar in the next act. Good move, gents.



Where to start! Among other things, this production features the magnetic performance of Australian born, American schooled Danielle de Niese, as Cleopatra. Her exotic presence (she is of Sri Lankan/Dutch heritage), alongside stalwarts like Sarah Connolly, Patricia Bardon and Angelika Kirchschlager, makes this an outstanding confluence of casting. In fact, though you might quibble about “authenticity” of vocal technique here and there,  I thought there wasn’t a remotely faulty note uttered by any of the six major roles. Some (Cesare and Cleopatra, in particular) have extended arias with vocally acrobatic demands, while others like Patricia Bardon’s Cornelia positively drip with anguish with every phrase, an impossibly difficult affect to keep alive for each of her several six-minute long arias. Angelika Kirchschlager as her son, Sesto, at least has some variety in his arias, though they tend be rage arias, which are not only difficult to sing but hard to keep from devolving into relentless repetitive runs and cadenzas. Kirchschlager, whose voice I very much like but is new to opera seria, needs to be an actor here as well and she brings off her cross dressing role convincingly and musically. Poor girl, she is really put through the ringer in McVicar’s staging, spending half the time on her knees. Tolomeo, sung in counter-tenor mode by a young, riveting Christophe Dumaux, has his share of maddening ferocious passages.


Before her character utters a sound, Sarah Connolly postures herself as commanding and arrogant as we expect from one of the most legendary of all historical political/military figures, with hardly a trace of caricature. And then there’s that voice. Not only does she sing with a luscious, not overly ripe tone, but she manages those rapidly articulated runs whipped off cleanly without undo attack, as easy as singing Dixie. I haven’t a clue how anyone pulls this off technically. It just doesn’t seem possible. At the same time, it is up to Ms. Connelly to achieve that suspension of disbelief for the audience of a woman speaking and singing as a man. It is Cesare who speaks first, and if she is not Caesar then all is lost, not only for her character, but for Sesto and Tolomeo as well as Cleopatra’s servant, Nireno, the latter two sung by counter-tenors.

If Cesare is imperious, Cleopatra, an ambitious, if love-starved adolescent, Cornelia, the grief-stricken widow, and Sesto the dutifully avenging (if somewhat inept) son, then Tolomeo is the personification of danger. Comic, licentious, but also ruthless, conniving and arbitrary, he is an opportunistic plague in man’s clothing - all this singing in a voice that sounds suspiciously female.


All of this passion and affect is bound up in the da capo aria, a form that has survived in abbreviated form to this day in the shape of a typical pop song in a simple A-B-A structure, even if “B” is nothing more than a bridge before the return of the main tune. But back in Handel’s day the da capo aria was the form in which emotion was bound. At this moment in the score the composer does not write out the music for the return but uses a shorthand sign to indicate that the music is to be reprised from the beginning: da capo (literally: from the head). But there is a reason why the principle feeling expressed in the opening verse returns after a brief contrasting escape. It is my opinion - and apparently, McVicar’s and Christie’s as well, whose Age of Enlightenment Orchestra is always at one with the stage action and the emotional presence of the singing - that the return is not merely a repeat (though it is so designated), but a resignation and commitment to the emotion expressed initially. In the present production, we see how the staging as well as lighting and tempo underscores this strategy. Regardless of the prevailing mood of the aria, the singer must not simply restate the original condition, but own it. Tradition allows for improvised embellishment (which got out of hand with some divas back in the day) that offers the possibility of even greater affective connection. . . as if the initial expression was just a trial balloon, and the last, its most earnest declaration. Check out Sesto’s self-wakeup call to avenge his father Svegliatevi nel core soon after he sees Pompei’s bloody head in Act 1, or Cleopatra’s aria Se pietá de me non senti at the close of Act II to see how this can work.


All this might lead you to expect that, like its name - opera seria - Handel’s Giulio Cesare is a humorless affair. Well, if it ever was three centuries ago, it sure as hell isn’t here. There are numerous opportunities for sly humor, at times stopping just short of slapstick; some of it sexually provocative as when Tolomeo comes on to his sister, but nothing that should frighten the horses; some of it poking gently fun at opera seria itself, as when Sesto finds himself sitting next to a revived Tolomeo for the final chorus. Then there is Cleo and Nireno whipping up some characteristic Bollywood dance gestures that have come down from the early days of cinema. The accompanying bonus feature, aptly titled Entertainment Is Not A Dirty Word, speaks to the question of just how serious is opera seria?



What’s not to like here! Opus Arte grants a high bit rate to the transfer, assuring a dense, artifact-free image. Contrast is well under control, except for those moments when an actor stands too near a local off-stage light source. Color is superb, with saturated reds (why else dress the Romans as Brits?), pure whites and blacks, and long scale tonality in the shadows, especially useful in Cleopatra’s deep blue chambers.No DNR, no edge enhancement. I ask again: what’s not to like and be swept away by? I might add that Robin Lough’s video direction is right on cue, always in the right place with the right framing, lensing and editing.



Balance favors the orchestra over the stage at times, though never comes close to overpowering the singer.  The continuo of harpsichord and theorbo are considerably, though perhaps understandably, louder than the audience would hear it.  Some singers are curiously louder than others, but this is readily ignored. Orchestral timbres are preserved, together with a textural richness rarely heard on video, and even more rarely from where the audience sits.  My complaint, and the reason my score is dropped to a “B” is that the balance engineer persists in maintaining the orchestra as an immersive experience for the 5.0 mix.  Ambiance is one thing; feeling surrounded by an orchestra is quite another. Your taste and needs may differ here.



Synopses of each act spoken against stills from the opera + "Entertainment Is Not A Dirty Word" (50:05), a film by the Blu-ray producer, Ferenc van Damme where David McVicar and cast members share their thoughts on Handel and Giulio Cesare + "Danielle de Niese and the Glyndebourne Experience" (22:10) a relaxed, informal portrait of this exciting 26-year old and her first season with the festival. Both segments are presented in excellent high-definition. Opus arte offers their customary illustrated booklet that includes an index of the the recit’s and arias plus a four-page essay in French, German and English by George Hall, who places this production in historical context.



I believe it is generally conceded that Handel’s Giulio Cesare is not only the composer’s finest opera, but arguably the best example of the opera seria tradition. Once acclimated to the musical language of opera seria there is nothing on Blu-ray that can touch this production in terms of vocal and orchestral performance, acting, emotional involvement (ours and theirs) and pure entertainment value. The visuals are second to none and, while I have misgivings about the surround mix, the audio serves the music generously and lovingly.  It’s hardly stretching the point to say that Opus Arte’s release of the 2005 Glyndebourne/McVicar production is a high point of opera on Blu-ray regardless of composer.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

April 3, 2014

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