I am a lucky sausage. As well as all these lovely Covent Garden and ENO performances of late, I got tickets for Glyndebourne. Giulio Cesare, no less. That production on the DVDs. Woo-hoo. Not sure it hadn’t gone a little off-the-boil though.
I think the performances were – pretty much universally – a little more ‘knowing’ than they were on the DVD or during the first run. Nods and winks – and even a bit of mugging – was thrown in to a production which, for all of that, still has a remarkable energy and life in it. It really is a striking piece of theatre. If you are a real Handel devotee and aficionado, I’m sure you would revel in an ‘authentic period’ production of this piece. For the rest of us (six hours of Wagner, yes; four hours of Handel, ummm…) we need a bit of oomph added. Otherwise it can get a bit long…
But, bloody hell, was it long… The third act, in particular, had that structure that is also apparent in Mozart: everyone has a ‘number’ to deliver, so that half-way through, suddenly the formula becomes apparent. Oops, yes, Sesto is left on stage and, yes… it’s two lines of recitative and, oh… off we go into the aria. And every aria has its da capo (is that the term?) repeat. To paraphrase the immortal words of Joyce Grenfell describing Beethoven in a monologue: “well, that’s the thing about Handel, isn’t it? Just when you think it’s finished, the whole thing starts all over again…”
But these really are remarkable performances. Is this is a solely Glyndebourne production, or has it travelled? I ask because I can’t imagine the casting for some parts, other than that assembled… Danielle de Niese is remarkable as the complete package – I can’t imagine a more ‘Cleopatra-ish’ exponent of that significant role. If I were to carp, though, I wonder if the singing alone would quite stand up to scrutiny. I thought her runs were a bit indistinct, and some of the pitching generally was just a bit out. But you can’t fault that overall performance, it was genuinely a tour-de-force of theatricality. She revelled in the comedy, delivered pathos in the tragedy (including a genuinely moving Piangerò) and moved like an Egyptian queen possessed. Well worth the huge cheer she got.
And then there’s Christophe Dumaux. My recollection of countertenors when I was at Oxford was that they could give fabulous dinner parties, were engaging company, and could sing impressively if a little starchily. Whilst it’s never been my favourite voice type, I have to honestly say that none of them could back-flip, fall on stage in quite dramatic style or hop effortlessly on and off of tables. Could anyone else perform this production’s vision of Tolomeo? Again, a complete package seems to be demanded and this sort of Gesamtkunstwerk requirement really does seem to be a tall order…
At the centre of all this nonsense stood the wondrous Sarah Connolly as Cesare himself. She really does manage to carry it off like no ‘trouser role’ I have ever come across. She comes across like the sensitive ‘thinking man’ at the heart of all of this barbarity going on around her. Cesare’s repudiation of the ‘gift’ of Pompey’s severed head, presented by Achilla from Tolomeo, is believable because he seems to be detached from the countervailing crudity of spitting countertenors and venom of embittered women. It really works to detach the character and raise him above the goings on around him… She is a tremendous performer, as demonstrated in the ROH Dido & Aeneas.
One thing about all of the abounded joy swilling around the production is the effect it has on poor Cornelia and Sesto. In particular Cornelia: every time she comes on stage she seems to drag behind her a dark cloud of gloom that blots out any of the uplifting material that has gone before, and makes for such an uncompromising contrast. Patricia Bardon was, however, marvellous and displayed a rich voice and a remarkable stage presence. Achilla threw her around the stage like a rag doll and she performed that marvellously, retaining a remarkable poise under assault.
Such camp fun, it was all rounded off with a Cesare-Cleopatra wedding scene which somehow called to mind the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady. Hats, parasols, big frocks, etc. and all in biege and pastels. Had it come half an hour before, it would have been a little more welcome. Even McVicar’s high-octane approach to the goings-on of Guilio Cesare couldn’t stave off a few longeurs in that one-after-the-other stand-and-deliver final act.
And the Glyndebourne experience? Being early in the season, we booked a restaurant for reasons of weather: Over & Middle Wallop, to be precise. It was wonderful but added considerably to the cost. The other downside (which does mean that a picnic is always the best option really) is that you are sort of at their behest. You take however long to get out of the auditorium, then queue at the Maitre d’, then get sat down and the meal unfolds, but you miss the opportunity to wander and enjoy the grounds, watch the crowds (who, let’s face it, are always entertaining) and browse for nic-nacs and tat in the shop. That’s half the Glyndebourne fun! Well, that and the privilege of watching a fantastically well-drilled, collaborative, polished performance of an opera in an almost perfectly-sized theatre.
We have Tristan und Isolde in August. I said I was a lucky sausage…