Outstanding musically, but you can see why Sellars' style is as controversial as it is
Giulio Cesare is one of Handel's best operas, dramatically compelling with gorgeous music. I am familiar with Peter Sellars and his style, and for me he is somebody who at times has it and others where he doesn't make the grade. While his Theodora is an example of a production where he has it, this Giulio Cesare is an example of him falling short in my view. It is not terrible, far from it, but watching it you can see why people won't like it and why Sellars is seen as controversial.
My problems with the production were with the production values and staging. The sets were colourful actually, but some of the costumes for the singers, especially those for Susan Larson, made them look foolish and I was never really sure what the setting or concept was for the production, it all seemed muddled for me. The staging, although it does have its good moments, was an example of Sellars getting ahead of his own ideas. Some parts like Cleopatra masturbating I found distasteful(and I imagine others will feel the way). I'll say right now that I have no problem with non-traditional opera productions, quite a number of them are very good as a matter of fact. Where I don't like it so much is when the production looks unappealing or when it's either static or distasteful. While there were far worse examples about, this production wasn't exactly ideal either for me.
I was also very mixed on Jeffrey Gall as Cesare. There are times when he does sing beautifully and he makes for a quite authoritative figure, on the other hand some of his colouratura comes across as smudgy and while Cesare was written originally for a castrato even for a countertenor there were instances where Gall wasn't quite manly enough.
However, the video directing apart from a perhaps slight overuse of close-ups was excellent, giving the viewer an immediacy in the drama. The Sesto-Cornelia duet dramatically is a highlight, genuinely heart-breaking. Musically the production is outstanding. The orchestral playing is crisp and beautifully blended, giving the drama its much needed depth. Craig Smith does a sterling job conducting, maybe some of the recitatives could have done with more oomph pacing-wise but the intent and energy are certainly there.
Susan Larson is very good as Cleopatra. She has some quite degrading moments but handles them with marvellous dignity. Attractive and witty, she is very convincing in her acting, and her singing is rich and creamy, suited for Early Music I think. Drew Minter's Ptolomeo is entertaining and he sings with a clear tone, while Cheryl Cobb contrasts greatly with Larson in their banter together- the inclusion of her Act 2 aria is a big bonus also- and James Maddalena proves himself a fine singing-actor with his chemistry with Mary Westbroek-Geha's Cornelia literally on fire. Westbroek-Geha is excellent in her role, heartbreaking in her duet with Lorraine Hunt, the latter as Sesto giving the finest singing of the production with beautiful tone and a great emotional intensity to her diction and musicality.
All in all, musically it is hard to find fault with, on a visual front opinions are going to be very divided I can imagine. I found many things impressive with this Giulio Cesare actually, but it didn't blow me away. In all honesty, I did find the David McVicar Glyndebourne production much more satisfying. 7/10 Bethany Cox
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