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Roman conquest

Royal Albert Hall
08/20/2005 -  

Sofia Gubaidulina: The Light of the End
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, "Choral"

Christiane Libor (soprano), Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Studebaker (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachman (bass-baritone)

Kurt Masur (conductor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Finchley Children's Music Group, London Philharmonic Choir


George Frideric Handel: Giulio Cesare

Sarah Connolly (Caesar), Patricia Bardon (Cornelia), Angelika Kirchschlager (Sextus), Alexander Ashworth (Curius), Danielle de Niese (Cleopatra), Christophe Dumaux (Ptolemy), Rachid Ben Abdelsam (Nirenus), Christopher Maltman (Achillas)

William Christie (conductor), David McVicar (director)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Glyndebourne Chorus

A bread-and-butter night at the Proms on Saturday 20 August offered a Sofia Gubaidulina UK premiere and Beethoven's Ninth. The title of The Light of the End suggests more of the apocalyptic glare of Gubaidulina's stunning Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ According to St John, performed by the Mariinsky Orchestra at the Proms in 2003. But The Light of the End is an altogether gentler work: instruments playing at tempered and natural pitch engage in counterpoint and occasional conflict, in a somewhat symphonic format, until the end, when a natural chord emerges. In a pre-performance talk, Gubaidulina said that the clash between pitch schemes evoked the pain of modern life, but this seemed to be more of a personal statement like Berg's Violin Concerto than a cosmic construction like The Rite of Spring or Varèse's Ameriques. There was less pain than mild anxiety (at least to a hearer with a less than exquisite sense of pitch), and the total effect was romantic. In the second half, Kurt Masur directed a not totally dissimilar, measured but emotional Beethoven's Ninth that in the last movement became euphoric without ever losing control.

The Glyndebourne visit on Tuesday 23 August was patisserie by comparison, and maybe something more. Giulio Cesare is probably the most performed of Handel's operas in modern times, perhaps because Julius Caesar is a comparatively familiar historical figure, or perhaps because Handel's Cleopatra is a great diva role. As a result, it has more of an engrained performance tradition than most Handel operas, and many audience members know what they expect. Yet it strangely difficult to say what Giulio Cesare is really about. Caesar's affair with Cleopatra handily combines sex with politics, at least for the two of them, plus a bit of swashbuckling, while the youthful Sextus matures as he protects his mother and avenges his father, and Ptolemy and his wily oriental courtiers act outrageously. The mix is Shakespearean, Anthony and Cleopatra without the worm or Ahenobarbus' droning rather than Julius Caesar, but the recitative-plus-exit-aria format keeps things rather static, in contrast to, say, the relatively short-breathed scenes in Serse, which responded well to Nicholas Hynter's now classic Royal Shakespeare Company style treatment.

David McVicar's approach may seem frivolous to those who like their opera or Roman history serious, although both are seriously misguided preferences. As in his ENO Alcina, he treats many of the arias as song-and-dance numbers, and uses the dance to act out both the rhythm and the content of the rhetoric. Alcina used a lot of slightly out-of-date disco moves; in Giulio Cesare McVicar goes the whole Bollywood hog, taking his cue from the proto-orientalism of the setting (virtuous westerners and dodgy but alluring Egyptians) and ignoring the fact that in the movies the dancers are miming to playback singers. "V'adoro pupille", the set-piece impersonation of Virtue with which Cleopatra woes Caesar, began with a "Walk like an Egyptian" schtick by Cleopatra and her two attendants and "Da tempesta il legno infranto", their celebration of escape from metaphorical shipwreck, involved the same three in some sailor japes. "Va tacito" had Caesar, Curius, Ptolemy and his attendants in a hip-pointing dosey-do that acted out the controlled aggression of the diplomatic encounter splendidly. But the best set piece was purely musical: Sarah Connolly as Caesar sang and whistled ecstatically in duet with an on-stage violin in "Se in fiorito", his anticipation of his private date with the alleged Lydia, with whom he is smitten.

All the funny stuff involved the Egyptians and Caesar in some way. The Roman thread, Sextus' quest for revenge and Cornelia's trials, was done in conventional, slightly melodramatic style with plenty of straight-to-camera arias. A serious drawback in the Albert Hall was that many of them involved the singers sitting on the floor or on low chairs, which send their voices straight into the heads of the arena audience and made the singers even more difficult to hear in the hall's erratic acoustics. Patricia Bardon, a mature, luscious looking Cornelia with rock-solid voice production and a glorious rich voice, came off well, as did Christopher Maltman, a cold and sinister Achillas who could nevertheless have done with a few of John Tomlinson's bass-baritone notes. Alexander Ashworth was a solid Curius and also had the measure of the hall. The counter-tenors didn't have a chance: Christophe Dumaux was a handsome, obnoxious, rock-star Ptolemy but his voice kept disappearing into the void, while Rachid Ben Abdelsam as Nirenus, a highly amusing gay pal for Cleopatra, was splendid in his recitatives but lost every second note to the echo in the complexities of his well-deserved aria.

Angelika Kirchschlager specializes in what is becoming the Kevin repertoire, Cherubino, Octavian and the Ariadne composer. Sextus isn't interested in sex and is obsessively devoted to his mother, but McVicar, like other recent directors, made him hormonal and tantrum-ridden anyway. Kirchschlager looked cute and clearly had the notes under control, but she was another victim of the hall. So was Connolly as Caesar to some extent, although she was so completely immersed in the role that it was still a great performance. Strikingly handsome au naturel, and often theatrically gorgeous in the right wig and frock, she looked and acted exactly like a slightly seedy middle-aged soldier-politician at a loose end in foreign parts.

Danielle de Niese was irresistible as Cleopatra. A large proportion of the audience gave the impression that the evening would have been well spent just looking at her, but she had theatrical chops as well, and she can dance. She certainly sang the music, although in something like a music-theatre belt that was the antithesis of the "baroque speaking" style that is usual these days and unlikely to appeal to old-school admirers of Beverly Sills either. Her Australian origin suggested a latent affinity with a group of highly talented and trained triple-threat young performers, although Londoners might think of a tanned version of Kim Medcalf (with a lot more voice) rather than Kylie. It would certainly be interesting to see de Niese in "One Touch of Venus", Medcalf's first role out of stage school.

The semi-staging for the Albert Hall kept the costumes, which were eclectic but generally had Romans as colonial Brits of various kinds – Caesar was a Redcoat with a baroque breastplate, Curius wore a kilt and Cornelia was a Memsahib – while the Egyptians were vaguely Bollywood and always dressed up in some way. It also kept most of the dances, although the reportedly spectacular scenery and Cleopatra's bath didn't make it. What obviously survived completely was the sheer entertainment and euphoria of the production. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under visiting genius William Christie were such an essential part of this, and played so flawlessly, even the natural horns, that it was almost possible to forget about them.

HE Elsom



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