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Handel: Giulio Cesare [DVD] 
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Natalie Dessay (Artist)
Le Concert d'Astree (Artist)
Emmanuelle Haim (Artist)
Laurent Pelly (Artist)
Giulio Cesare, the most popular of Handel s operas, is named after the great Roman emperor, but its most memorable character is Cleopatra. In this production by Laurent Pelly from Paris splendid Palais Garnier, the role of the Egyptian queen is assumed for the first time by Natalie Dessay, described by the Telegraph as "a supreme vocal enchantress".
Giulio Cesare is the opera that, over the quarter century, has led the vigorous revival of interest in Handel s works for the stage. Now in the repertoire of theatres around the world, it offers a dazzling array of dramatic situations and moods with music to match and the seductive and captivating character of Cleopatra exemplifies its (to quote Shakespeare) "infinite variety".
Natalie Dessay chose to make her stage debut in the role of the Egyptian queen at Paris s Palais Garnier, an opera house of legendary splendour and beauty and, seating an audience of less than 2,000, well suited to the intimacy of baroque opera. Dessay had already recorded all the character s arias for Virgin Classics with conductor Emanuelle Haïm, who was also in charge of the performances at the Palais Garnier in early 2011. "Every note is as clear and lustrous as a freshly polished crystal chandelier, said the Toronto Star of the soprano s recorded performance, while the Telegraph (UK) enthused that Dessay proves a supreme vocal enchantress".
She proved a svelte physical enchantress, too, in the staging by Laurent Pelly who, notably, directed Dessay in the sparkling production of Donizetti s La Fille de régiment that was seen in London, New York and Vienna and released on DVD by Virgin Classics. His witty and stylised conception of Handel s opera was described thus by the Wall Street Journal: "The curtain opens on the vast storeroom of an Egyptian museum, stuffed to the rafters with statuary and paintings, crates and frames. As a guard reads his newspaper, a statue of Julius Caesar comes alive plaster gray from top to toe, including his Roman soldier's garb. Caesar bursts into song, and sculpted heads and busts aligned on storage shelves follow suit, singing along in chorus. We're off into the wacky world of director Laurent Pelly's new production of Handel's 1724 Giulio Cesare at the Paris Opéra ... there is never a dull moment. The newspaper went on to praise the excellence of the cast: not just the stellar Ms. Dessay but also counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo as Caesar, mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan as Cornelia and especially mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Sesto".
In The Sunday Times (UK), Hugh Canning, an enthusiast for Handel s operas, wrote that: "At the end of Act II, Cleopatra has one of Handel's most sublime arias, the great G minor lament 'Se pietà di me non senti', and Dessay sang it as well as I have ever heard in the theatre. She is an artist who understands the synergy of notes and text."
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Giulius Cesare has posed no small casting problems over the past decades of its revival. Cesare is composed for alto castrato (Senesino) and so is Tolomeo. In this production we have two countertenors filling the bills for these two major male characters, and this is a dramatically convincing arrangement.
Sesto, on the other hand, was a trouser role, being sung originally by a mezzo-soprano Margaretha Durastanti. In this production we have Isabel Leonard singing Sesto. Cleopatra was a role for coloratura soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. Nathalie Dessay is a natural choice for this role. Cornelia is a contralto role. Varduhi Abrahamyan brings dramatic conviction to this role with a slender figure and rich contralto voice.
This cast is about as good as one can hope for in this opera: Lawrence Zazzo in the titlerole is competent, if not outright great. Christophe Dumaux is as seasoned a Tolomeo as one could possibly hope for, and I wonder how many productions of this opera had him singing this role. Having said that, both singers had a considerably hard time juggling with Madam Haim's rather angular phrasing and hectic tempi, especially in the most florid passages of their arias.
Abrahamyan's Cornelia is rich in tone, but rather less affecting in terms of expressivity.
Her 'son' Isabel Leonard brings forth a glorious mezzo-soprano Sesto, with a voice to die for and a stage presence so boyish that even countertenors would but envy.
Yet despite all their vocal credentials, these characters are to more or less extent curtailed by the stage activities, either distracting the audience from their performances, or impeding their performances altogether.
Nathalie Dessay is the least affected by the stage businesses, being a very seasoned actress on stage. Her attire may be controversial, but her performance is convincing both vocally and dramatically, if not outright perfect.
A real surprise comes from the veteran character countertenor Dominique Visse in the relatively minor role of Nireno. This eunuch has never been better portrayed on stage as does Mr. Visse here.
On the whole, the production is not as successful as it aspired to be, and despite a comparatively capable cast, the show does not really pull off as it should.
If you want to see and hear new singers like Leonard and Abrahamyan, this DVD may be worth while. Otherwise, give this a pass would not be a big loss.
. However I found the singing superb and the staging imaginative without being distracting. I shall certainly try some more Handel.
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