ALBUM TITLE: Handel
WORKS: Giulio Cesare
PERFORMER: Flavio Oliver, Elena de la Merced, Ewa Podle´s, Maite Beaumont, Jordi Demènech; Gran Teatre del Liceu Chorus & Orchestra/Michael Hofstetter; dir. Herbert Wernicke (Barcelona, 2004)
CATALOGUE NO: DVWW-OPGCES (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 anamorphic)
A wise director is unafraid of the humour and farce lurking under the skin of Giulio Cesare. And it is here that the Barcelona Liceu Cesare falls down. By refusing to acknowledge the ridiculous in the Egyptian court, the operatic conventions themselves seem unnecessarily absurd. And this male Caesar, sung by the high, penetrating countertenor of Flavio Oliver, is too easily emasculated both by this Cleopatra (a brilliant Elena de la Merced), and by the music itself.
Sesto and Cornelia are sung with dignity by Maite Beaumont and by the old-style, plummy contralto of Ewa Podle´s. And there is a crocodile in the cast as well. The presence of an eccentric extra can often indicate a director’s uncertainty; and there’s a suspicion here that Wernicke lacks faith in this opera’s intrinsic power and seriousness as human drama.
The official extras are confined to those hidden within the production itself: arias stolen from Rinaldo, Orlando and Tolomeo, in what was thought to be period practice, but which, in fact, add nothing. And there’s an annoying mystery: placards with inscriptions make frequent appearances – but the camera never zooms in on them. A frustrating and under-nourishing Cesare.
The Glyndebourne production, this month’s DVD Choice, is urgently recommended. But those who crave a totally reliable, undisturbing, if unchallenging Giulio Cesare, with all the nobility of true opera seria, can always turn to Opera Australia’s handsome, well-sung 1994 production (Euroarts 2053599), directed by Francisco Negrin and sensitively conducted (on non-period instruments) by Richard Hickox. Hilary Finch