There wasn’t much drama onstage when the Metropolitan had its oh-so-tasteful way with Handel’s Giulio Cesare on Friday. There was plenty of drama backstage.

It swirled about Ruth Ann Swenson, the brave diva on duty as Cleopatra. An attractive member of the company since 1988, she has graced 225 performances in both coloratura and lyric assignments. The day before the opening she gave an unorthodox interview to the New York Times detailing personal crises. Six weeks ago she completed treatment for breast cancer, having undergone both surgery and chemotherapy. She returned for Faust on March 12. Now, at 47, she said her Met career is nearing its end. Peter Gelb, the new boss, has booked her for a few Traviatas next season, then nothing. “He doesn’t like me,” she said.

With that background, she embarked on one of the most trying challenges in the florid-soprano repertory. It would be gratifying, but less than candid, to report a triumph. She looked lovely, moved gracefully, sang sweetly in the reflective passages. But she encountered increasing difficulties with ornate flights as the four-hour marathon wore on, and conveyed little erotic or exotic glitter. Still, it is worth noting that she will sing Handel’s Agrippina next year next door at the City Opera.

Essentially this was a soporific performance, an intimate undertaking in a cavern that accommodates 4,000. The stately and stilted production, directed by John Copley with designs by John Pascoe and Michael Stennett, dates back to 1979 at the English National Opera. New York first encountered its neo-Baroque platitudes in 1988 – much dancerly posturing, much flourishing of capes. This time Harry Bicket enforced leisurely period-impulses in the pit with a cast dominated by precious countertenors. When audible (in the ninth row), David Daniels, the manly Caesar, sounded virtuosic. Lawrence Zazzo piped incisively as Ptolemy, and Michael Maniaci swooped deftly as Nirenus. Wayne Tigges provided welcome basso contrast as Achillas. Patricia Bardon made an auspicious debut understating the passions of Cornelia, and Alice Coote demonstrated subdued brio as Sextus. Perhaps in a smaller house . . .
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