Getting Laurent Pelly to tackle Handel’s most popular opera looked like a cert. The Carry on Cleo calibre of so many successful productions over the past 30 years made the work seem a natural fit for France’s master of comic timing.
Not so. Although it gets off to a good start with a wonderfully witty gallery of singing marble busts, Pelly’s inspiration quickly fizzles out. He fences himself into a corner by setting the action in a storeroom in Cairo’s museum with the cast as statues that come to life but are unseen by the workforce. The thesis – a reflection on interpretations of antiquity – is a loin cloth of a take with no real substance and scant development. It also alienates us from the characters so that we feel as unconcerned by their emotions as the workers on stage.
Tedium is rammed home by the drab single set, a collection of packing cases and statues that the extras wheel on and off in a feeble attempt to accompany more than three hours of music. The show is clearly under-rehearsed but not even slicker movements and lighting that actually functions will save this enterprise.
Handel’s glorious score would have sufficed but for the intransigence of the Baroque ayatollahs who insist on the original low pitch. This can work in the right acoustics but Garnier is a 19th-century house and requires considerable lung power. The cast find themselves grovelling for subterranean notes, most notably Lawrence Zazzo (Caesar), a fine musician with a ripe and robust alto voice as long as the music is comfortably above middle C. Isabel Leonard’s stylish Sesto would also feel happier a semitone higher and even Varduhi Abrahamyan’s woolly laments in the contralto role of Cornelia are sometimes inaudible.
There is more disappointment from Natalie Dessay, the queen of the high-wire pyrotechnics, whose conversion to more terrestrial Baroque inflections is not yet, on this evidence, a done deal. Her first Cleopatra, played convincingly as an adolescent minx, comes with laboured ornamentation and edgy tone.
Emmanuelle Haïm steers her Concert d’Astrée band to exquisite highs and vulgar lows, encouraging her continuo players to rattle around like cutlery in a kitchen drawer during a quake. The aggressive washboard strumming for “Va tacito” was particularly grotesque.