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The pith helmets and colonial setting initially make it look like a spin-off from David McVicar’s celebrated Glyndebourne staging but Yannis Kokkos (production, sets and costumes) is not known for his wit so the similarities stop there. Despite the trendy relocation to an art deco Hollywood vision of the story – club armchairs and Nubian slaves with rigidly lacquered bobs – this could have been an honest stab at bringing back emotion to Handel’s masterpiece and using humour merely as icing on the cake.
But Kokkos, like most, is too terrified that modern audiences will be exasperated by a litany of da capo arias without additional frills from dancers and moving props. He cancels out occasional inspiration with silliness: the bare-chested lackey and his lasso movements with a thurible round poor Nireno’s head (an admirably stoic Artur Stefanowicz, who sings on regardless) or the Busby Berkeley military march that sabotages Ceasar’s stealthy Va Tacito with stamping feet.
What a waste of an excellent cast, all of them strong enough to establish sophisticated characterisation without this intrusive fuss. Marie- Nicole Lemieux’s Caesar is a remarkable stage debut, an authoritative, masculine persona with exquisite contralto tones. Ingrid Perruche’s full-throttle Cleopatra sounds, at its best, uncannily like Valerie Masterson in the same role, Elodie Méchain’s Cornelia is richly expressive and Stéphanie d’Oustrac gives Sextus all the vital energy of impetuous youth. Philippe Jaroussky’s spoilt brat Ptolemy reveals a stage presence to complement the note-perfect technique of his virtuoso recordings and Riccardo Novaro’s Achillas is a model of projection.
In former times, singing of this calibre would have been shipped into a recording studio but they would have had to leave the orchestra behind. Kenneth Montgomery tries to stamp Baroque lightness on musicians used to other repertoire and the result is disastrous: squeaky violins career through rapid runs with heavy casualties and modern horns somehow blow the same raspberries as inexperienced original instruments.
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