Cher Public

Carry on Cleo

Natalie Dessay coyly bares a breast on the cover of Virgin Classics’ new Giulio Cesare. But don’t let that put you off; this DVD is worth buying.

Giulio Cesare is perhaps one of the earliest examples of “ensemble opera.” It requires a large cast, and each character has an important musical role. This video was culled from performances from the Paris 2011 production and features excellent baroque singing from almost the entire cast. 

Laurent Pelly‘s production is more imaginative than his work done for the Metropolitan Opera or Covent Garden. The stage is a museum that is filled with ancient Egyptian and Roman relics. The chorus is consisted of the museum workers who watch their museum “come to life.” Cesare makes his entrance as a statue and voilà, the statue starts to sing!

Thus the opera is done “in period” but without the stiffness that a real 3-D Roman/Egyptian set would have. It’s a variation on the “play within a play” format but it’s entertaining and a good introduction for those who are intimidated by the baroque opera seria format.

It’s notable that Mozart, when he wrote Clemenza di Tito from an existing opera seria libretto, trimmed the recitatives, created ensembles, and generally tightened the libretto into what he called a “real opera.”  So people even in the 1700’s found the opera seria format a bit stodgy. The music’s beauty and power is unquestionable but it is a challenge directors have to face, and I think Pelly handled these challenges well.

The show is dominated by Lawrence Zazzo in the title role. I know he has sung this role at the Met and elsewhere, but he gives such a commanding performance that the casting of David Daniels in the Met’s upcoming production seems a bit like the usual “five years behind the curve” Met back-dating.

The challenges of Cesare seem to hold no terrors for Zazzo.  “Va tacito” is a highlight. His voice is bright, clear, and this is a weird thing to say but he’s one of those countertenors that doesn’t “sound” like a countertenor. There’s none of that muffled, squeaky sound.

Christophe Dumaux is equally excellent as the mustache-twirling villain Tolomeo. He’s a scene-stealer in the best sense of the word and I definitely look forward to seeing him in this spring’s production at the Met.

Isabel Leonard (Sesto) is quickly distinguishing herself as one of the best lyric mezzos on the scene today. Her voice has the duskiness of a real mezzo along with the lightness and flexibility to handle the demands of baroque arias. Admirers of this artist will no doubt want to hear her heartfelt, sincere Sesto. The relationship between Sesto and Cornelia (Varduhi Abrahayman) had a real tenderness. The rest of the cast is also very fine.

And La Dessay? Well, if you were among those who heard her sing La Traviata last year (I was) and wondered about her vocal estate for this spring’s new production in New York, this video is both reassuring and worrisome.

On the one hand, Cleopatra is a shorter role, and part of a huge ensemble opera. It’s not like Violetta, who carries La Traviata, for better or for worse. There are still some very fine Dessay moments. “Piangerò la sorta” is perhaps the very best. She sits alone in a chair, desolate and inconsolable, and it’s heartbreaking.

Her timbre at its best has a sort of girlish charm that matches her gamine-like appearance. Her voice has a fair amount of flexibility. In other words, if there were aspects of Dessay’s artistry that you valued before her extremely well-publicized vocal crises, those qualities are still there in fits and spurts.

But there’s no denying that the voice itself can no longer take any pressure. When pushed it becomes weak and shrill and it can make your ears bleed. This is a really unkind analogy but when she is pushing her voice to reach notes it no longer has both in the top and bottom of her range, she sounds a bit like Susan in Citizen Kane, a caricature of an opera singer.

I don’t think it’s an accident that when her voice is failing her the most, she resorts to the kind of mugging that is quite frankly embarrassing. Pelly is an experienced director who has worked with her before and so he has worked around this a bit by directing Cleopatra as a spoiled princess who only becomes serious she truly falls for Cesare.

But still, the foot stamping, arm waving, “look at me putting on a show!” stuff is off-putting when it’s clear that this is a singer trying very hard to control a voice that’s no longer really there. When her voice is still working, her dramatic instincts are fine. When it’s not, you just want to cover your eyes and remember the days when she was opera’s tiny kick-ass powerhouse.

Emmanuelle Haim‘s conducting might be what we call the “post-HIP” era of baroque conducting. HIP practices are now being mainstreamed into opera orchestras, but some of the HIP excesses are thankfully gone as well. Violinists no longer sound as if they are physically attacking the strings.

Virgin as usual is only releasing this on DVD, and not in the more popular Blu-ray format.

  • TShandy

    Sorry, I just couldn’t wait any longer to post this taken from Anthony Tommasini’s “Praising Quick Strikes of Fancy” article int he NYT last week. It’s about the much contemptuously maligned (by Parterres) opera by one G. Puccini, “La Bohéme.”

    Take one of the most famous dramatic moments in all of opera, suggested by William E. Wallace of St. Louis: Rodolfo’s cries of “Mimi” at the end of Puccini’s “Bohème,” which come right after Rodolfo realizes that his beloved Mimi has died. This intense moment “is banal and not really musical,” Mr. Wallace writes. Not so, my fellow Puccini lover. To me Puccini is never banal. The effect in this climactic moment is achieved by his sophisticated reworking of music heard earlier in the scene, when Mimi, knowing she has little time left, comes back to Rodolfo to patch up their quarrel and die in his company.
    All the roommates are there when Musetta arrives at the garret with Mimi, who can barely stand. At one point, lying on a bed, Mimi drifts off, or so it seems. The other bohemians leave the couple alone for what looks to be their final moment together.
    Then, singing a sad, tender melody in C minor, Mimi opens her eyes and tells Rodolfo that she was only pretending to be asleep so they could be alone. There is so much she wants to tell him.
    But later, in that final moment, when Rodolfo realizes that Mimi has died, that sad theme returns, blaring in the orchestra and pushed up a half-step to C-sharp minor. Over the weighty, heaving orchestra Rodolfo cries out Mimi’s name in anguished sustained high notes. So now, as the orchestra ominously makes clear, Mimi is no longer pretending to be asleep. This moment would not be so harrowing had we not already heard that melody in a completely different emotional and musical context.

    • much contemptuously maligned (by Parterres) opera

      Sorry, I must have missed all the contemptuous maligning. But then, with so many contemptuous people milling about…

    • Um okay, that was a quicker threadjack than I anticipated.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        Anything is better than rehashing the state of her voice and personality in any repertoire.

      • phoenix

        ol’ TShanty zaps it again -- hijacks the comment thread before it has even begun! The Gaul of it All! I should talk, I know absolutely nothing about Händel’s operas.
        -- Devoted Händel fans come forth and defend your territory!

      • Rory Williams

        Yes, Ivy, that was seriously light-speed. Never underestimate the Parterinni!

      • Sempre liberal

        My dear Ivy, both are operas, and both are in Italian, so I’m sure there’s a connection all of us malinging parterrians cannot see.

        I would have thought, my dear Poison, that the esteemed Vicar might have commented on why Janet Baker is not singing Cesare anymore (and in the Queen’s English!) well before there’d be a Tommasini digression.

        Nonetheless, despite Rodolfo’s anguished but far-too-mainstream cry, I did enjoy your review tremendously. Not contemptuously.

        • The Vicar of John Wakefield

          Dame Janet had wonderful innings in this part, now “owned” worldwide by Sarah Connolly.

          Plus, Christopher Robson was a far finer Tolomeo than any of these cheap foreigners one hears today.

      • Perhaps he’s being meta. Tristram Shandy is the original threadjacked novel.

        (And if I may jack the jacker, it occurs to me that Potocki’s similarly wayward “Zaragossa Manuscript” has the makings of a kick-ass opera.)

        • SF Guy

          The film of Zaragossa made for a wonderfully weird and unique movie-going experience during my college days, producing a pot-free natural high:

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      Woe to him or her who does not quake at the sound of those shattering C#-minor chords! If you’re not moved to the brink of tears, or actually sobbing, at the death of Mimi something’s really wrong. TSHandy’s posting is right on the money with regard to his analysis.

  • oedipe

    Natalie Dessay coyly bares a breast on the cover of Virgin Classics’ new Giulio Cesare.

    Just to set the record straight from the start here (no pun intended, really): Don’t let it fool you, it’s a fake!

    • Ok this might also be an epic threadjack but when I saw Diana Damrau onstage twice in Le Comte Ory, she had these huge, pink, “I just had a baby” knockers. Hard to ignore them. Imagine my surprise when I saw her offstage, and she was not nearly as … well endowed as I expected. When I watched the HD video I looked carefully and thought she might have been wearing these removable enhancements. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter but sometimes live in HD does really shatter stage illusions. The wig lines, the “barefoot” stockings, stuff that isn’t viewable from a stage.

    • manou

      It seems the Janet Jackson police has been at work in the top picture.

  • Clita del Toro

    Les Troyens report: Leonora da Pin-Yenta attended the rehearsal. She said that the orchestra and chorus were excellent/exciting. She loved the performance until the principals came on, and then it, unfortunately, went way downhill. Voigt and Giordani were not good (I won’t go into the horrible details). Susan Graham was fine as were singers in the the smaller roles. L d P-Y also liked the dancing.

    • Camille

      What does the good Leonora da P-Y have to tell us?

      Is it news that is fit to print…?

  • louannd

    I enjoyed this review Ivy. I have seen this production thanks to the magic of the internets and I too thought Zazzo carried the day. Your comments are spot on, and,
    yes, a fake nipple for sure.

  • Nerva Nelli

    Ivy, some good points but it strikes me that POPPEA,much older, is even more an ensemble opera and so are several other earlier Handels, notably AGRIPPINA and RINALDO.

    Nor is Cleopatra “a short role” if it is performed complete!! From what I can tell from online sources, Dessay (like most Cleopatras) does not sing the lovely “Tu la mia stella sei” in this performance- is that true?

  • manou

    Hello Ivy -- nicely written review but I must play to type here and tell you that it should be “Piangerò la sorte mia”.


  • Hippolyte

    I’m not sure I understand the point of evoking Mozart’s Clemenza (written in 1791) in a discussion of Cesare (written in 1724--nearly 70 years earlier). Yes, Metastasio’s libretto for Clemenza was written as an opera seria proper in 1734 but it had already been much revised by the time it got to Mozart.

    I also don’t see how Cesare can be construed as an “ensemble opera” per se--it has eight characters but only six of them sing arias--the other two parts (Nireno and Curio) are tiny, although I think that Haim and Pelly interpolate an aria for Nireno. Almost every Handel opera I can think of has about that same number of principal characters, although a couple--Orlando, Amadigi--have fewer.

    However, at least this edition of Cesare includes most of the music that Handel wrote so that it seems less like the “Cesare & Cleopatra” show that the MET put on in 1988 (and only slightly revised in subsequent revivals) where the other characters lost a lot of their music.

    As Nerva implies, seventeenth-century opera--be it Italian, French or German--nearly always has many, many more characters than any eighteenth-century opera seria.

    The orchestra in this performance is the conductor’s own group, Le Concert d’Astree, a period-instrument group brought in for the production--not the usual Paris Opera Orchestra.

  • oedipe

    This review expresses pretty accurately my own impressions of Pelly’s Cesare, as seen live at Garnier.

    Just a few remarks:

    Zazzo is a very fine musician and he was excellent in the role (he actually LOOKED like Caesar), but I believe he is at an advantage on a DVD, because in the house he was rather underpowered, sometimes even inaudible.

    The night I saw her, Dessay sang an absolutely stunning “Piangero”(detractors be damned).

    Emmanuelle Haim is a very controversial conductor -are there any women conductors who AREN’T controversial?- but she has a symbiotic relationship with her own orchestra, which I find fascinating to listen to AND to watch when she conducts.

    Last but not least, I agree that this production is much more interesting than, for instance, Pelly’s Manon, or Robert le Diable. But it’s not really “a play within a play”, it’s more complicated than that. What Pelly is trying to show, I think, is the contrast between European “orientalist” views of ancient Egypt and contemporary Egyptians’ attitudes towards their own history or, more exactly, the Egyptians’ ambivalent attitudes towards European art relics in the National Museum in Cairo, where Pelly places the action of this production. There are two worlds in this staging: the contemporary one, that of the Cairo museum staff and handymen, and the imaginary one, that of the characters in the opera, which are statues that come to life at night, when the museum is closed. Remarkably, the premiere of the production coincided with the Arab Spring, the Tahrir Square protests, a coincidence that gave a special significance to the director’s reading. There are a lot of interesting references to art history in this staging; too many of them, arguably, resulting in an impression of hyperactivity . But I loved the production nonetheless.

  • Nicely written review, Ivy. Zazzo has a major voice and one of the biggest counter-tenor voices I’ve heard. Both his Oberon and Orfeo in Toronto were excellent.

  • Chanterelle

    Zazzo is good, but Oedipe is right, he was VERY hard to hear, at least from orchestra 4th row. Close miking can work miracles.

    Dessay was indeed working awfully hard; Ivy’s right about the struggle-to-overacting ratio. But she does coy rather well. I thought the fake nipples were pretty convincing--I had to verify through opera glasses. Cornelia showed a bit less, but the ladies were meant to look alluring, I suppose.

    • Wow thanks for this input from someone who saw the production. It’s much appreciated since all I have is the DVD.

    • Interesting as I’ve found Zazzo do be a rather big-voiced counter-tenor. The acoustic of the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto are superb but still, I’m surprised that you and Oedipe found him so inaudible sitting only a few rows away. How does he compare to other counter-tenors for you?

      • oedipe

        Dumaux, for instance, had a much bigger voice in this Cesare. Maybe Zazzo’s voice has got smaller lately?

  • la vociaccia

    Great review. I saw a couple videos on youtube and agree Piangero is a great moment for her, especially the crazy cadenza she puts in before the da capo with the dip down to low G. If she ends up going through with the Met Cesare, I think it will still be well worth seeing.