I watched this TDK DVD release last night and, initially, had some serious problems with the production and had to stop watching. I decided to then read the essay in the accompanying booklet to see what I was missing. While I found the essay a bit over-esoteric and "foofy" (and startled to learn Wernicke cut some arias and added a handful of arias from Tolomeo, Rinaldo and Orlando), I was glad to have something to wrap my head around, only to discover - horrifically - that "Da Tempesta" was one of the arias that was cut. Unforgiveable. Bad, bad move.
Nonetheless, I moved forward and again hit play, finding the essay I'd moments ago dismissed really illuminated what Wernicke was going after, with the result that I ended up loving the performance.
Visually, it's a rather simple series of sets all taking place on a raked platform of the Rosetta Stone(?) surprisingly effective and at times, visually splendid. All of this is aided by some truly amazing lighting and the ceiling of a stage sized mirror.
One touch I thought I'd hate, but ended up being moved most by was the added silent character of the Crocodile. Yes, you read that right. (From the essay):
"The monster - the great mute protaginist of this production . . . occupies the stage as a symbol of the etneral and immutable myth of Egypt, a privileged spectator of the clash between two cultures, two diametrically opposed worlds, and the relationship, of opression and submission, they finally adopt."
Indeed, one of the most powerful moments was during "Piangero" as Cleopatra (attired in a modern gown) feels alone - abandoned by Cesare's supposed death, abused at her brother's hand, and the Crocodile slowly moves towards her and she strokes it. Somehow the symbolic becomes reality and it is a moment of striking, heart tugging beauty.
Cleopatra, by the way is the Spanish beauty, Elena de la Merced. It's a sin that she doesn't get to sing "Da Tempesta" - I can't figure it out. What she does sing, however, is often ravishing, most especially "Se pieta" which is breathtaking. Her tone is beautiful, she sings Handel style beautifully, good trill and truly feels her music.
Flavio Oliver is a slightly frustrating Cesare. The voice is unevenly produced, sometimes a pinched, thin sound but when he dips down lower (say to the tenor-ish range - such as a G below middle C) it is a gorgeous sound. All of that changes in the third act where something happened and his 10 minute solo scene "Dall'ondoso periglio" is one of the show's highlights - Oliver winning me over completely. I've been spoiled by Scholl and Daniels and Oliver simply is not in that league, but he's not "bad" as a singer. Fortunately, he's incredibly handsome, athletic and a marvelous actor, literally flipping head over heels at Cleopatra's 1st entrance (as Lydia).
One of the biggest highlights is Ewa Podles singing Cornelia's first aria, which brings down the house. Podles is marvelous, keeping a heart-on-her sleeves broken noblewomanly quality that balances Sesto's eternal rage. Their duet "Son nata a lagrimar" is absolutely exquisite.
Maite Beaumont's Sesto is intense and brilliant. Her voice is beautiful and she nails the character and wins the audience (and my) heart.
Jordi Domenech as Tolomeo is high camp with an odd combination of throatiness and hootiness (which at times wears thin) but he knocks the role out of the ballpark in the addition of his post mortem sung "La morta a chiamar" (from "Tolomeo") - his now disembodied head singing from the ground in a tour-de-force that makes me want to have this aria included in all Cesares.
Oliver Zwarg is sloppily attired in modern Safari short suit, and sings a little sloppily to boot, but even he won me over by the end.
The final tableaux after a kind of surprising staging of Cesar & Cleo's final duet, has the previously unseen chorus appear as modern day tourists, disposable cameras, sandals, sun hats, loud shorts, pouring over the Rosetta Stone, guide books and maps in hand, who flee screaming when the Crocodile, now sans his costume (no, not naked) speedily spins around the stage chasing them away. It might sound terrible as I relate it, but it's a smile inducing, brilliant touch that garners an instant roar.
Michael Hofstetter (who looks all of 19 years old) conducts an absolutely thrilling musical performance from the pared down Liceu orquestra, and the chorus's minimum contributions are gorgeous (as is the chorus!). Some of his tempi are a bit too fast for my taste, but work here and the singers (mostly) keep up, though one can't help believe that the sometimes smudged coloratura wouldn't have been at a more leisurely pace. Still, it's exciting and even with my hesitation am glad to have this in the collection.
While it might seem an offensive practice to us today Handel was forever doing the same thing: dropping one aria to insert another he felt more appropriate to the occasion, the singer, or the public. I recall reading some scholarly report or other of how Handel's 1731 revival of Rinaldo featured no less than 11 arias changed from his original score (the premiere of which also featured arias from other of his operas).
One need only go back to the beginnings of the current Handel revival - say, 1966 and the landmark (and frequently lambasted) 1966 City Opera "Cesare" with Sills and Triegle to have Handelian scholars brought to their knees in protest. Inauthentic? Who cares: I will always love this recording despite of its lack of authenticity, wild cuts and voice-altered characterizations, including using a basso instead of a treble for the title role. While today many in the cult of "purists" decry anything other than Handelian Puritanism, cat gut and valveless horns, the reality is actually quite different: baroque operatic purity is nonexistent.
We can attempt to recreate, as best we can, by means of research, scholarship, personal diaries and other materials both historic and fundamental but ultimately forever be incapable of duplicating exactly what was done in Handel's day, as well as how to do it. Ergo: "purity" goes out the window. I happen to like Handel played by a full symphony orchestra with cymbals, clarinets and a 100 voice chorus, such as those monstrosities Beecham and others took through their mad and modern excursions into the territory of Il Caro Sassoon. That I don't prefer my Handel that way, doesn't diminish my delight at the occasional hearing of these bastardizations because, more frequently than not, the intent behind their creations stemmed from a love of Sir Georg not a disdain.
In general, I despise the notion of a production requiring my reading, understanding and acceptance of a directorial concept before being able to enjoy or appreciate any work -particularly, a life long and familiar favorite. Having said that, the brief amount of time required to read (and initially dismiss) the dramaturgical essay, my return to the DVD moments later, literally, changed everything and - despite my violent (and ultimately useless) protestations on the dropping of certain arias and the inclusion of others: Wernicke's take on this masterpiece is profoundly well reasoned one and instead of what I perceived as a direct and diametrical opposition to sensible Handelian practice, made me remember Handel - one of the greatest men of the theatre - throughout his entire career, was cutting and pasting and thus, altering his own work based on the trends of his day. What Wernicke has done in recreating Handel for a 21st century audience makes me wonder what G.F.H. would have made of it. Of course, no one can know that.
What Wernicke accomplished with this production was indeed a success in that the audience for whom this work was performed - screamed and shouted bravo for 7 minutes after the final curtain, the entire cast and conductor returning for numerous curtain calls.
While this performance will never rank among my favorite Cesares, I am glad I took both break and deep breath and plunged back in to experience it? The singing is often glorious and the music is still all Handel, baby and 3 hours and 40 minutes flew by (snaps fingers) like that.