A couple of months ago, I managed to lay my hands on a copy of the now famous Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare (the Bollywoodesque one) at an idiotically low price. I don't buy much opera on DVD, partly because much of it is still relatively expensive and partly because since becoming a responsible billpaying inhabitant of an expensive city with an opera house, I don't really buy that much of anything that isn't either edible or a ticket. (I suppose in desperate circumstances, the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.) Anyway, as I say, this particular DVD was not expensive so I made it mine. And intended to write about it then, but never did; so now that I'm running out of present moment subjects to write on, I might as well write about the past.
My favourite thing about this Cesare might seem stupidly obvious — it reminded me that this is an opera about its title character. More often perhaps than I should admit, I've accidentally called this opera Cleopatra, because that's who it's always revolved around for me, for more reasons than one. (Though the one's a rather major one.) But Sarah Connolly is so powerful as Cesare, so strangely attractive, and sings so fantastically that my focus shifted. She starts strongly and proceeds to get electrifyingly better throughout.
The production of course is pretty fabulous. The references to Bollywood seem slightly misleading to me — that's there, naturally, but there's a whole lot more besides. Egypt becomes a picturesque outpost of the British Empire, complete with Sesto the budding soldier. And Sesto, being sung by Angelika Kirchschlager, is absolutely adorable, a nervous young man with, yes, a bit of a mother fixation, who commits himself to a murder which is totally against his character. One of the most incredible moments in the whole opera comes when Tolomeo finally lies dead before him. He is totally shellshocked, disgusted. While he stares, unseeing, into space, his mother smears his face with Tolomeo's blood. It's a disturbing moment and a very affecting one. Proof, too, that Angelika's supreme command of pants roles goes beyond boyish Cherubino antics.
Blah blah blah...we all know who everybody went wild about after this Cesare opened. Danielle de Niese. Not hard to see why: she sings, she dances, she's unfathomably gorgeous. The very model of a modern Cleopatra. Very sensibly, the transformation of her Cleopatra is not the about-face from scheming nymphette to honourable, devoted companion that you might see elsewhere. Here, Cleopatra grows up, certainly; abandons her earlier plot and learns to act selflessly. But it's nevertheless still completely evident by the end that this woman still has plenty of havoc to wreak. She's matured, yes but reformed? No. She does a stellar job vocally, too. And yet, I confess, I was not entirely enthralled. Something, somewhere, rang a little false for me. Perhaps it's supposed to; but it just felt at times a bit too much like The Danielle Show. I also wasn't entirely enraptured by her singing, for reasons inarticulable this far removed.
The more I think back on this Cesare, the more I appreciate how brilliant it actually is. The kind of show that makes me want to sit here and lists its million little clevernesses and beauties — but they'd lose everything in the telling, at least they would if told by me. One especial treat, however, needs to be pointed out. The reviews will tell you how well Danielle dances, but believe me, she has nothing on Rachid Ben Abdeslam, whose Nireno totally steals the show with his "Chi perde un momento" — has to be seen to be believed. As, indeed, does the whole thing. Definitely worth your while.
P.S. — A Note on the Perils of Handel
When I watched this DVD, I turned all the lights out to heighten the effect. They were out in the rest of the house too. Evidently this gave the impression that nobody was home. Which I know because during Cleopatra's "Se pieta", somebody tried (and failed) to climb in my bathroom window. (Don't worry. There was no face to face encounter. Just a noise, and then a note from the landlord in all the letterboxes the next morning, warning about intruders who had climbing up drainpipes and through windows to rob apartments in my complex. Oh, the risks one takes for the baroque.)