That this is the third outing for David McVicar's Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne in just five seasons is emphatic testimony to the charm of this all-singing all-dancing fantasy of a production, proving once and for all that it is oh so much more than the sparkling sum of its novelty parts. Jean-Marie Villegier's film-noir Rodelinda, that has for a such long time been synonymous with Handel at Glyndebourne, has finally been deposed by an altogether more youthful upstart of a production, but one whose energy and irreverence is balanced by a technical sophistication and intelligence that would satisfy the sternest of purists.
Trading the Roman Empire for the last years of the British Empire, McVicar's production plays an extended visual game with stereotypes of Englishness and exoticism - the opulent hangings and diaphanous draperies of Cleopatra's boudoir set against the rigidly upright formality of western drawing-room and military culture. Robert Jones' set design is a miracle of lavish efficiency, creating tableaux after tableaux of such distinctive and striking character, framing each aria in a visual world of its own. The quaintly traditional wave machine that rolls gently along at the back of the set throughout provides a lovely wry nod towards traditional staging, particularly when juxtaposed with the unabashedly anachronistic cloud of Zeppelins that loom briefly on the horizon.
The true strength of this production lies in the meticulous and organic integration of all its elements. Music, text, setting and movement all work together to shape the action, with nuances of melodic line echoed or undercut, both to intellectual and comic effect. Such integration is so self-evident a goal of opera - the gesamkunstwerk extraordinaire - that it would seem unnecessary to mention it, but for the sheer bulk of productions that fail in this regard. Too often the spheres of director and music director remain rigidly distinct, resulting in dramatic gestures that do little more than gloss the musical content, and thus the sheer audacity and ambition of McVicar's vision is as unusual as it is electrifying.
From the opening bars of 'Presti omai' the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were a delight, driving the music forward with stylish technique that lost none of the energy or joy of Handel's orchestral writing in its polished accuracy. The upper strings in particular shimmered and shimmied their way - as appropriate - through the arias, relishing pulsing dance rhythms and stately legato lines with equal commitment. The only criticism lies with the horns who seemed a little underpowered, particularly the soloist in 'Va tacito' who failed - perhaps in deference to Sarah Connolly's softer tone - to match the drama of the vocal line.
Among a strong ensemble cast Connolly is predictably the musical star, bringing her flawless technique and control to the role of Caesar that is as challenging dramatically as it is vocally. Not the most powerful of operatic singers, Connolly's strength lies in her beauty of tone, which is sustained to the extremes of her register, and her committed and convincingly understated acting. The coloratura tour de force that is 'Al lampo dell'armi' was performed with such nuance and control that one hardly missed the all-out power that singers such as Jennifer Larmore have brought to it. In Connolly's delicate hands it was gentler arias such as 'Non è si vago e bello' and the beautifully lilting 'Aure, deh, per pietà' - not obvious show-stoppers - that really flourished, and commanded new attention.
Much has been written of Danielle De Niese's Cleopatra, and reports of her stage charisma have in no way been exaggerated. With McVicar's take on the character conceived specifically with her in mind, it showcases dancing skills worthy of Broadway, and exploits to the fullest extent her physical affinity with the role. Her Cleopatra is a kittenish minx of a seductress who sits somewhere between Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Dubois, using every wile in the book to ensnare her man.
Vocally De Niese is at her best in the pacier arias. Her splendidly vigorous 'Da tempeste' is a joy both to watch and hear, as is the playful 'Non disperar'. Compelling the audience by the sheer force of her personality and stage-presence it is very easy to get swept up in the De Niese magic, but happy though I was to embrace this I found myself unconvinced by the stiller, more contemplative scenes - so crucial as a dramatic balance to Cleopatra's extravagant histrionics - where De Niese seemed unable or unwilling to occupy a different dramatic tone in her singing. Both 'V'adoro pupille' and 'Piangerò' are long vocal set-pieces that require an enormous amount of understated control if they are achieve their full dramatic and musical impact, and neither truly settled into that shimmering inward stillness that Stephanie D'Oustrac (Sesto) achieved so magically in her 'Cara speme'. Doing less is not something that comes naturally to the extrovert De Niese, who for all her virtuoso sparkle as yet lacks the control of Connolly or Bardon.
Patricia Bardon, the other Handelian heavyweight of the cast, presented a Cornelia who seemed to belong to world of Greek tragedy rather than the lighter tragicomic world of Roman politics. Her depth of tone and extraordinary range came into their own in this brooding character, who can all easily become monotonous in her unrelenting grief. She and D'Oustrac worked well together to bring out the element of psychological obsession present in both characters, charting respectively the descent into maddened hysteria and the painful journey to manhood with unfailing - and genuinely disturbing - conviction.
For intelligence, wit and all-out opulence McVicar's Giulio Cesare cannot be bettered. Were the singing merely mediocre it would still demand a viewing. Beg, borrow or steal a ticket to this, the operatic event of the summer.
Photo Credits: Tristram Kenton
Interview: Vladimir Jurowski talks about Glyndebourne's 75th Anniversary Season
News: Glyndebourne on Tour announces 2009 season
News: Glyndebourne on Tour appoints Jakub Hrusa as next Music Director
CD Review: Freni, Gencer, RPO/Varviso perform Le Nozze di Figaro (Glyndebourne)