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.