Christophe Rousset has no luck with producers. Here’s another example of his excellent baroque band Les Talens Lyriques harnessed to an embarrassingly bad staging. The culprit this time is Irina Brook, a young producer who might have had the courage to avoid giving Handel the camp treatment that has ruled for the past 20 years. Instead, she goes for a laboured version of the same.
Nicholas Hytner first did it for Giulio Cesare in a landmark production for the Paris Opera in 1987; David McVicar followed suit last year at Glyndebourne with a Bollywood version. But Hytner managed to preserve the work’s emotion while keying into joke visuals. Brook pitches everything on the same trivial level: Cleopatra sings her poignant “Se pietà di me non senti” against a trashy portal to “The Oasis” nightclub.
The compendium of derivative touches also features dancers accompanying arias with undulating mild rap, and a costume mix that goes from a Sherwood Forest tunic for Caesar to a hip modern suit for Tolomeo. Clearly unaware that this particular opera seria does not require constant antics, Brook has men in black training their revolvers on the captive Cornelia as if she’s going to get far in a dreary desert set, wearing a skimpy nightie. And, to finish off on a hackneyed high, all hands on stage celebrate Caesar’s nuptials with a good old jive.
The cast, compelling on paper, failed to shine overall. Andreas Scholl’s Caesar is sung with impeccable style but is dramatically insipid, Rosemary Joshua spoils her cheeky Cleopatra by systematically scooping up to notes and fooling around with pitch, Sonia Prina is a competent but gravelly Cornelia and Mario Cassi’s Achilla is boorishly tuneless.
Alice Coote comes to the rescue with a beautifully honed, velvety Sesto and Franco Fagioli’s spiteful Tolomeo plumbs the depths of a low-tessitura part with magical ease.
Rousset’s conducting has his usual poise and care over texture. A pity about the natural horns – on an off night from hell – but I’ll take their unintentional raspberries as a fitting comment on the staging. ★★☆☆☆
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