Further Adventures of Idiots at the Opera: They did WHAT to boys? Giulio Cesare 4/12/13

We decided to see Giulio Cesare because we liked the publicity photo of Natalie Dessay with the Louise Brooks’ bob. Despite our misgivings about the Vegas Rigoletto, the Bollywood Cesare looked like fun.

It was around this time last year we saw Dessay in La Traviata, and fell in love with opera. More recently, I learned we’d been lucky to actually see her, as she’d missed a few performances, so when I read about her triumphant opening night as Cleopatra, I could only cross my fingers. Then she missed Tuesday’s performance, but had been replaced by Danielle DeNiese who’d sung the role in the same production when it was first presented in 2005. DeNiese was still standing by. It sounded like it would be a win in either case.

We’d never seen an 18th century, baroque opera, so I did a little research. The title role had been written to be sung by a castrato. Since we don’t cut off boy’s testicles anymore, nowadays they use a countertenor. Huh? Countertenor? I’d heard of them, but wasn’t sure if they were only a rumor. Not only is the title role a countertenor, but so are two other important ones.

Friday night we had our ritual pre-opera dinner at Nice-Matin. It’s not right next to the Met, but not too long a walk. As 5:15 is a bit early, the waitress asked us if we had some event to get to later. This being New York, she turned out to be a singer, knew it was even money on whether or not we’d be seeing Dessay or DeNiese,, and had even met David Daniels. We joked about cheap seats, rush tickets and standing room not being a great choice for the vertically challenged. We left happy to have had another great only-in-New York-moment.

There were no announcements, which meant Dessay would be singing. Yay!!!!

The verdict? Let me start by saying of the nine productions I’ve attended this season at the Met, this was my favorite. (The better half concurs.)

It was smart, playful and fun. With two intermissions, it’s a long night (four and half hours), but it didn’t feel long. There was a point to the mix of both time periods and geography in the settings and costumes – a comment on orientalism, imperialism and culture-clash made with humor and wit.

Do they give awards for choreography in opera? Andrew George certainly earned one. To somehow mix Handel not only with Bollywood, but Hollywood and even a bit of the Charleston, and make it all look so right, was an astounding feat. Also deserving of praise is Nicolas Sandys, the fight director, though I’m not sure if some of the more cinematic touches and effects came from him or from the producer, David McVicar. The whole production appears so unified it feels like one mind is behind it.

Costumes, sets, choreography, and sword fights. What am I missing? The music works too. I didn’t look into the pit during the performance, but per the program notes Harry Bicket, the conductor, was playing the harpsichord. I’m not sure how you conduct while playing an instrument, but all musicians are miracle workers as far as I’m concerned. The music is beautiful, and would be even if you took away everything else, but with everything else it’s all sublime. Again there’s that unity of tone and timing. At one point, Cesar sings an aria accompanied by a violinist onstage. They look at each other. They are playing together — a duet for one vocalist.

It’s hard to single out performers when so many were so good. Patricia Bardon’s smoky mezzo gave Cornelia gravity and blended beautifully with the higher range of her “son” Sesto, sung by Alice Coote who was outstanding. Christophe Dumaux, as Ptolemy, sporting a mustache and hair reminiscent of Borat or perhaps various silent film villains (probably deliberately) stole every scene he was in, not only with his very powerful countertenor, but his boundless energy and comedic skills. Rachid Ben Abdeslam appeared to be enjoying himself and entertaining us playing Nireno as the nance.

I’m wondering, however, whether David Daniels was having a slightly off night. Per reviews he gave a very strong performance on opening night, but his voice didn’t seem to be projecting as well as it should have been on Friday, particularly in the first act. Not having heard countertenors before, we might have dismissed the softness as a generic issue when men sing at such high range, but with Dumaux so clear and strong, that doesn’t seem to be the case. (If he did catch Ms Dessay’s cold, he should be over it by the next performance).

It was disconcerting to hear a voice that high come out of the mouth of a man as tall and burly as Daniels. It feels especially strange for Julius Cesar to be singing like a girl. I understand that since the 1920’s, some productions have used bass-baritones in the role. I’ve only been able to find a snippet of one aria sung by a bass. Even to my lousy ears, it didn’t sound right. It makes sense to trust the composer and try to get to the sound he wanted (as long as we don’t mutilate children to do it). I didn’t have a problem with Ptolemy as a countertenor. It somehow went with his foppishness. Nireno was supposed to be a eunich, so I went with that. But Cesar? Then again, opera subverts gender all the time with trouser roles.

When McVicar’s production opened in Glyndebourne in 2005, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connelly sang Cesar. A video can be found on youtube. She sounds and looks amazing. Drag itself is a comment on gender, especially in this case when we know the history of the role and the sexual politics at play in the libretto. I could see how casting a woman would work in this production where it’s all about cultural clash, deception and role-playing. Then again, I could be over-thinking. As staged, while this Cesar “looks” like a he-man hero, he’s lost in Egypt, shocked by local customs. He’s the one who is seduced, playing the passive traditionally female role. Perhaps Handel himself was trying to tell us something by writing it for a “feminine” voice.

As for the performance of Natalie Dessay…

I know she has detractors. Maybe she doesn’t have the top notes she did twenty years ago, so what? She sang beautifully Friday night. Her voice is strong, rich and has an unmistakable, distinctive timbre. She also knows not just how to sing an emotion, but how to play a character. She’s a great dancer, but more than that, she can dance while singing with no breath problems and without missing a step or a note. If she had become an actor as she originally planned to, she would no doubt be considered a triple threat, and the queen of live theater. You couldn’t not watch her.

I get there are operavores who believe that singers should do all their acting with the voice and not their bodies, but if it were only about the voice and technical perfection, we would all be sitting at the score desks, or home listening to recordings. Opera is music, but it’s also live theater and the other stuff counts too. The point of performance is for the audience to feel. There may be sopranos who are more reliable and proficient than Dessay, but few of them are stars of her caliber, who can make us feel what she can. Opera doesn’t just go into your ears, it pierces the heart.

Performances run about twice a week until May 10th. Tickets are still available. If you think you can’t afford to go to the opera, check out this previous post. If you can’t get to the Met, the Live in HD is on Saturday, April 27th.

Taking you out with this clip from the live dress rehearsal:

(If you found this review useful or interesting, feel free to look around at some of the other posts, including opera and book reviews. A good way to say “thanks for the blog” is to check out my books on Amazon. An even better way is to buy a book, read it, and write a review on Amazon.)

2 thoughts on “Further Adventures of Idiots at the Opera: They did WHAT to boys? Giulio Cesare 4/12/13

  1. do you know why they would use such a high voice for a “alpha male” role? I understand using castrati for women but for the main role?

  2. @ chaim. Maybe it was sort of a cute thing to do, like when they have musicals today where kids are playing adult roles. Who knows?

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