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Fail Caesar

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera on March 24, 2016 at 12:54 pm

 

Review – Giulio Cesare (Semper Oper, Dresden. Friday 18 March 2016)

Giulio Cesare – David Hansen
Cleopatra – Elena Gorshunova
Tolomeo – Matthew Shaw
Cornelia – Tichina Vaughn
Sesto – Jana Kurucová
Achilla – Evan Hughes
Nireno – Yosemeh Adjei

Director – Jens-Daniel Herzog
Dramaturg – Stefan Ulrich
Staging & Costumes – Mathis Neidhardt
Choreography – Ramses Sigli
Lighting – Stefan Bolliger

Sāchsische Staatsopernchore
Sāchsische Staatskapelle Dresden

Alessandro De Marchi (Conductor)

Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of his more sophisticated operas in terms of the characters he brings to life and therefore notoriously difficult. It does have a simpler storyline than most but the characterisation woven into the music is such that it’s not difficult to understand why it can be a hit or miss affair. Just consider the contrasting success of Glyndebourne’s production versus ENO’s travesty.

Semper Oper’s production, first performed in 2009, had a few flashes of inspiration, but ultimately failed to convince. And in doing so, it failed its cast and in particular David Hansen who was making his debut in Dresden. This was the first time that a countertenor had performed the lead role and he should have been served with a better production and direction.

I’ve long been an admirer of Hansen. In the increasingly crowded countertenor world, he has a stratospheric, bright and flexible voice with a distinct timbre that, like Iestyn Davies, sets him apart. It was an impressive debut. Clearly there is work still to do and I hope that he will perform the role again and again because Hansen’s interpretation could become a defining Caesar. Handel wrote some of his greatest music for this role and Hansen acquitted himself well although I wish he’d deployed more of his bright, ringing top in the da capos. A highlight was Se in fiorito ameno prato and it was an inspired touch to have the obbligato violinist on the stage. Seeing the two performers sparring created one of the few dramatic and joyous moments of the evening.

His Cleopatra, Elena Gorshunova possesses an impressive instrument. It’s full-throated, has a pleasant weight and depth to it, a pleasant vibrato and is certainly agile. She successfully managed the vocal demands of the score, finding the agilità demanded of Non disperar, Tutto puó donna vezzoso and Da tempeste as well as a beautifully sustained line and added vocal light and dark for V’adoro pupille and Piangeró. However, whereas Hansen and some of the others managed their da capo ornamentation with both intelligence and grace, Gorshunova’s embellishments were too unstylistic in most cases and so ambitious that they strained the voice, b,urged the vocal line and led to intonation problems.

As Sesto, Jana Kurucová was a pure joy to listen to and whether it was deliberate or not, she captured the gauche quality of a teenage boy. In the dramatic arc of her interpretation, Kurucová successful portrayed Sesto’s transition from awkward boy to young man with Cara speme one of the highlights of the evening.

Sadly as his mother, Tichina Vaughn did nothing but disappoint but it’s not the first time that I’ve heard a miscast Cornelia. Are people so thrown by the seemingly simple music and misunderstand what Handel was conveying to the audience? Cornelia is a Roman matron, dignified yet destroyed and desperate, and her music reflects this. I don’t think there is anything more difficult than her first aria, Priva son d’ ogni conforto. Laden with pathos, the simple vocal line is incredibly exposed and requires a singer with magnificent technique and interpretive ability. All her arias – beguilingly simple yet notoriously difficult – require it. Sadly, Vaughn severely lacked the qualities and the technique for the role. I see she is scheduled to perform Klytemnestra in a new production of Salome this Autumn in Dresden. It’s difficult to see her in this role.

Of the remaining cast, Matthew Shaw’s Tolomeo and the Achilla of Evan Hughes passed muster without being exceptional.

De Marchi directed the orchestra briskly throughout, and at times too briskly although he did find a range of co,ours in the score although I’m not sure a harp featured in the original score. However he criminally marred one of the highlights of the entire opera – Son nata a lagrimar – by taking it at a gallop, although you have to wonder if that was for Vaughn’s benefit.

The production itself fell into the easy and obvious option of an eastern Mediterranean – probably Turkish – setting. Maybe it was just me, but there was also something slightly disturbing in the stereotypical portrayal of the ‘Eastern’ characters. The staging was smart, with the café setting in Act Two well done but it was undone by details such as Tolomeo’s cruelty – overdone and unsubtle – and the banality of the choreography.

Ultimately this Giulio Cesare was a disappointing production that let down Handel and Hansen and which resulted in the ‘politest’ audience reaction I’ve ever witnessed at the Semper.

The beauty and emotional impact of Handel’s music, Hansen’s baroque credentials and the audience deserved better.

Much better.

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