Monday, April 29, 2013

Giulio Cesare or, the Queen of the Nile

Dessay and Daniels in Cesare - but which one's the queen?
April Fools' Day may have been the first of the month but it didn't matter for the Metropolitan Opera last Saturday, as it pulled off one of the great practical jokes of recent time on a capacity crowd in New York and a worldwide HD theater audience, with David McVicar's hoax "production" of Handel's Giulio Cesare.

The idea of doing a broad parody of Handel's most famous opera - turning it into a sex farce complete with cross-dressers, hokey dance scenes, and over-the-top arias that seemed as if they would never end - would have been a risky stunt in less capable hands, but McVicar and his talented cast executed the spoof brilliantly, with nary a wink nor nod to the knowing audience, most of whom were in on the joke from the opening curtain. Not since This Is Spinal Tap has a genre been mocked so mercilessly - and hilariously - as it was here.

Cesare was ripe from beginning to end with scenes so ridiculous that they obviously weren't meant to be taken seriously as actual opera.  Take, for example, French countertenor Christophe Dumaux, whose Tolomeo was a joy to behold, a remarkable performance of over-the-top effemininity made all the more effective through Dumaux’s insistence on playing it all straight (so to speak). Surely the idea of turning the bloodthirsty co-ruler of Egypt into a fruit-flavored sadomachostic drag queen, and then suggesting that he actually had a sexual interest in Pompey’s widow Cornelia (shrilly played by Patricia Bardon) would have been madness in the hands of a lesser production team, but the sheer ridiculousness of it all just added to the general gaiety of the night.

Tolomeo’s bitter rival to the throne, his sister Cleopatra, was played to the hilt by the afternoon’s star, soprano Natalie Dessay. Dessay has long been recognized as one of opera’s greatest actresses, and her willingness to spoof her own reputation with an all-singing, all-dancing interpretation of the teenage queen that seemed to have come right out of a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “hey kids, let’s put on a show!” musical, with routines ranging from the Charleston to Bollywood-inspired schtick, was a risk from which lesser singers might have shied. Dessay, at least thirty years too old for the role, eshewed the use of any makeup that might have detracted from the impression she was actually playing Cleopatra's mother, and proved that in the generally stuffy world of opera, a diva willing to make an asp of herself is indeed a breath of fresh air.

Cleopatra’s love interest, Giulio Cesare himself, was the famed countertenor David Daniels. Up until the 1980s, the role of Caesar, written for the castrati of Handel’s time, had frequently been interpolated for high basses, providing a measure of authenticity for the work. That obviously would have been inappropriate in this case; thankfully, McVicar chose to go with the more modern practice of casting Caesar as a countertenor, and in the hands of Daniels, the military general became just another lovestruck boy. Daniels’ passionate make-out sessions with Dessay provided some of the biggest laughs of all.

We also shouldn’t overlook Alice Coote in the trouser role of Sesto, Pompey’s grieving son. The idea of Coote’s hermaphroditic Sesto vowing vengeance on the mincing Tolomeo would have been enough to keep anyone in stitches for the rest of the evening, were there not even more laughs in store.  And we must save a word for Rachid Ben Abdeslam, as Cleopatra's aide Nireno, obviously channeling Liberace's comedic talents in a flamingly flamboyant presence throughout.

The cast was ably led throughout by conductor Harry Bicket, perhaps today's premier interpreter of early music.  Baroque opera has gotten a bad rap through the centuries for its static staging and endless lyrical repeats (in which a single line is repeated as many as three or four times), making it rich for parody.  But by slowing the tempo even further, Bicket was able to produce exaggeratedly long set pieces - so long, in fact, that were this an actual opera many patrons probably would have fallen asleep.  This production, however, proved the old adage that nothing succeeds like excess.

Only base Guido Loconsolo, as Achillas, struck a sour note. His spot-on, realistic portrayal of Tolemo’s once-loyal aide turned traitor, was too grounded in reality to truly fit in, as if he were the only one of the cast not in on the joke. As it turned out, though, McVicar had an answer for that as well.

In an age when the world grows increasingly absurd, parody has become more and more difficult to pull off. Fortunately, McVicar’s crowning touch – that of bringing Tolemo and Achillas back from the dead to join in the chorus at the finale – surely removed any lingering doubt that this was a performance not to be taken seriously. After all, the alternative would be that the Metropolitan Opera was treating one of classical music’s greatest composers with utter disregard and contempt, mocking the story, the characters, and – most of all – the audience in a way that was both obscene and depraved, rendering the venerable Met as little more than a gay burlesque theater and Cesare a demented fantasy.

It would be so unthinkable, in fact, that only a madman would suggest that this performance was ever meant to be seen as anything other than this generation’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. Indeed, it’s likely that the Met’s Giulio Cesare can look forward to a long life of midnight showings at independent movie theaters. And for fans of absurdist musical comedy, that’s the best news of all.

1 comment:

  1. Wow good to hear that "The Metropolitan Opera" is hiring! I'm longing to be a part of their technical team! Today I have booked Metropolitan Opera tickets from to see them live!


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