Great swaggering mezzos!
St John's, Smith Square
11/16/2001 - and 17 November 2001
George Frideric Handel: Giulio Cesare
Hilary Summers (Giulio Cesare), Antonia Sotgiu (Cornelia), Louise Mott (Sesto), Geraldine McGreevy (Cleopatra), William Purefoy (Tolomeo), João Fernandes (Achilla), David Clegg (Nireno)
Christian Curmyn (conductor)
Giulio Cesare is widely regarded as one of Handel's great operas, at least from his comico-tragico-epic Royal Academy period. But, like the comparable Rodelinda, which shares a comic castrato, a batty tyrant and a major thug baritone as well as a tormented but faithful soprano role to die for, Giulio Cesare has probably had only one production in modern times that took it seriously as a work of theatre, that of Peter Sellars. Unlike Rodelinda (but like Alcina, though, it has had a number of duff productions and recordings since the 1950s, based on the premise that it is really a vehicle for a bel canto soprano. More recently, and far preferably if still far from ideally, Giulio Cesare has been seen as a vehicle for mezzos with heroic coloratura, notably Janet Baker and Ann Murray. Concert performances have been like hen's teeth, possibly because a big star in a frock is felt to be necessary to make an obscure opera worth while (and yes, Cleopatra would be a fine role for Cecilia Bartoli). The Early Opera Company's performance at St John's, with first-rate young singers in suits and evening wear, delivered superb music and bravura singing, and skirted all the hazards of semi-staging to present the opera as theatre probably convincingly as it ever has been.
There was no credit for the staging, but the key idea was the contrast between being childish and being grown up. Cleopatra and Tolomeo were hair pulling siblings; Sesto had his tie straightened (and possibly his nose wiped) during the opening ensemble before sulkily handing Caesar a palm. Cornelia was grown-up but inflexible, while Achilla was too sophisticated for words but equally (until his repentance at his death) unable to adapt. Caesar was always grown up, but learned by his responses to Cleopatra's girly poses and Tolomeo's fascist tantrums. Cleopatra also grew up, in response to Caesar, while Tolomeo self-destructed. Sesto made the choice of growing up like Caesar rather than his mother, which turned out to be the central decision of the opera.
The singers were all quite happy with Handelian style, and several of them were exemplary. Geraldine McGreevy's voice was slightly too large, perhaps, and her efforts at girlish dippiness made her look a bit like Margaret Dumont cast in a Shirley Temple role. But her sense of the dramatic rhetoric in the music, and Se pieta and Piangero were as they should be. Antonia Sotgiu's Cornelia was motherly but far from matronly, sometimes a bit wobbly vocally but generally wonderfully sweet and low. It was easy to see why everyone falls in love with her. Hilary Summer's Caesar swaggered superbly, and her singing was pinpoint accurate. Her voice is missing only a bit of substance -- Sarah Connolly could be the Caesar for our days. Louise Mott definitely had the voice for Sesto, as well as the character, though her blond crop and pouting made her look like Simon Butriss from some angles. She too might be a Caesar worth hearing.
William Purefoy was an effortless Tolomeo with a fine if monotone sneer. João Fernandes, in stiff pressed court dress as Achilla, also had a mean line in sneers and pretty good bass coloratura as well. David Clegg was endearing as Nireno, Cleopatra's gay friend.
Christian Curmyn directed the small orchestra in great style from the harpsichord. A good time seemed to be had by all.