Full marks to the Barbican management for presenting such excellent guest orchestras as, on this occasion, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Seeing renowned baroque expert RenÚ Jacobs conduct is also a privilege to be thankful for. But, though in the event this concert - a semi-staged performance of Handel's Giulio Cesare - inspired me to revisit Handel's wonderful score to remind me of the wonderful performances Sir Charles Mackerras conducted at the English National Opera over twenty years ago, I did not think that on this particular evening Jacobs was very inspired.
We had an excellent cast of singers, all of whom had secure technical skills with which to negotiate Handel's fiendishly difficult vocal gymnastics and all clearly well versed in the baroque style of singing. French counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo) presented a wide range of dynamics and portrayed the complex character of Tolomeo - probably genuinely caring for his sister Cleopatra but also propelled by blinding ambition for might - with astonishing credibility. Dumaux's expressive singing and acting skills, combined with amazing physical fitness, reminded me of baritone Simon Keenlyside in ENO's production of Billy Budd. Such all round singer-performers are rare. Occasionally Marijana Mijanovic (Giulio Cesare) was slightly off pitch and vocally slightly underpowered. But hers was an intelligent, musical and credible portrayal of an emperor in love. Cleopatra's role is extremely difficult. She delivers more arias than anybody else (including Cesare of the title) and Handel did not economise with the virtuoso passages. Anybody who delivers the role without causing damage to Handel's score, deserves our appreciation, and this was the case with Veronica Cangemi.
RenÚ Jacobs, a baroque scholar of standing, appears to be afraid of leaving enough space for emotions such as love, grief and even joy. Only occasionally did he allow unashamed emotional portrayals: his well-chosen tempo for Cornelia's aria ('Priva son d'ogni conforto') facilitated lovely singing by Kristina Hammarstr÷m and exqusite chamber music-like flute playing contributions by Susanne Kaiser. The beautiful, gentle ending of Cornelia's and Sesto's duet ('Son nata a lagrimar') showed Jacobs' understanding of human emotions. But one of the hallmarks of his conducting was tempi on the fast side as well as often rushing forward. This tendency made it difficult for the singers to be heard at full advantage, let alone to perform with several layers of dynamics. But even singers aside, some of Jacobs' accelerandos were hard to justify. For instance, why did he speed up during the B section of Tolomeo's 'Domer˛ la tua fierezza ch'il mio trono'? Though the players of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra are highly skilled, the extremely fast speed taken in the Sinfonia (which is, admittedly, the battle scene) of Act 3, made the notes scramble rather than triumph.
The semi-staging was somewhat confused. On one hand, referring to Cornelia, we heard the words 'she is coming round' (after she fainted) while all the while she was standing in the middle of the stage waiting for her turn to sing. Or Cesare sang 'the woman I love is asleep' while we saw Veronica Cangemi (Cleopatra) sipping water from a bottle at the side of the stage. On the other hand, we were presented with murder in the best theatrical sense when Sesto (wonderfully sung and acted by Malena Ernman) strangled Tolomeo. This real piece of acting seemed to surprise the audience who burst into laughter.
There was a small blot in the costume department too. Though it was small, it upset the balance in the semi-staging. Malena Ernman, playing the young boy Sesto, wore black trousers but also a very feminine and highly revealing top. One could be forgiven for thinking that one watched a beautiful, sexy blond Swedish mezzo-soprano rather than a teenage boy. To add insult to injury, for the first half of the performance Ernman also wore a very feminine scarf, loosely highlighting her very attractive upper body. Eventually she tied the scarf more like a gentleman's tie which then created the masculine image.
The leader of the orchestra supported RenÚ Jacobs' vertical conducting style by jerking (or even softly banging) with her foot most of the time. This was perhaps an aid to secure all round jerky orchestral playing, for instance in Cornelia's 'Nel tuo seno, amico sasso' (though Kristina Hammarstr÷m still managed to deliver noble melodic lines) and in Cesare's wonderful hunting aria - 'Va tacito e nascosto' - where, sadly, the jerkiness of the interpretation superimposed on the gentle side of this beautiful horn obbligato aria.
Solo cellist as well as continuo cellist Guido Larisch was rock solid and very expressive throughout the three-hour-long performance. Even his contribution alone made the trip to the Barbican worthwhile.
By Agnes Kory