Purveyors of popular art (e.g. Hollywood), despairing of critical brickbats over 'dumbing down', especially in recreations of history, may be interested to know that one of High Art's totems, Georg Friedrich Handel, was critically despised in his day for the same vice. In 'Giulio Cesare', a fraught and complex period of world history is congealed into a love story, with Caesar recast as both quivering lover and Indiana Jones-style action man, rescuing his woman from her brother's captivity.
Such silliness was par for the opera course in Handel's time, and in opera, narrative had always been secondary, or subordinate, to the expression of emotion. So although 'Cesare' is packed with dramatic and melodramatic incident - war, murder, beheading, torture, near-rape, seduction, disguised lovers, revenge, resurrection - the music is rarely thunderous (even for its time) or intense. The defining mood is slow, quiet - long passages of downbeat anguish as characters articulate their sorrows, fears, despairs. Listening to 'Cesare' is like hearing 'Dido's Lament' from Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas' stretched out to three and a half hours. The most famous arias see Cleopatra lamenting, while grieving widow Cornelia's 'Priva son d'ogni conforto', her duet with her son Sextus, 'Son nata a lagrimar' (with its liquid, suspended singing anticipating Mozart's most beautiful duets and ensembles) are similarly heartrending. Ceasar's vision of failure and the cost or war is profoundly shocking in an opera that seems so formally discreet. The astonishing orchestration, so rich and dense it threatens to upstage the singing, favours dark, melancholy colours. It's not all glum, though. There are some jubilant choruses and dramatic symphonies, while Caesar's 'Si in fionto ameno piato', in which the love object is compared to a bird we hear fluttering in the orchestra, is one of opera's most rapturous moments.
In an interview included in the libretto, director Jean-Claude Malgoire explains his scoring choices, which may not please purists with its additions and rewritings. However, the music produced is consistently clear, intelligent and delightfully fizzy. The singing is remarkable and idiosycncratic, with James Bowman an endearingly sympathetic Caesar, Lynne Dawson a seductive and passionate Cleo, Dominique Visse relishing Tolomeo the pantomime villain, and Nicolas Rivenq a harshly brusque Achilles in these staid environs.