Opera DVDs from Australia are as rare as Canadian ones and for the same reason. The national broadcaster’s approach to the arts would put the Philistines to shame so opera broadcasts from which DVDs can be produced are passing rare. The one under review here is a 1994 production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare from the Sydney Opera House.
There’s a lot to like about it. The stage production by Francisco Negrin is fairly conventional but attractive to look at and contains some very effective touches. He makes good use of an apron in front of the pit and he uses the rather minor character of Nireno to some effect as a sort of silent chorus on the action. Costumes are sort of 1900ish with odd touches like breastplates and Egyptian dancers and supers in white body and face make up. Sets are mostly simple with typical Egyptian iconography. Cleopatra is naked in her bath when she receives Caesar which would probably be too much for the more staid North American houses today, let alone twenty years ago. The choreography by Gregory Nash makes very effective use of a talented group of dancers. Best if all from the point of view of watching on DVD the video direction by Peter Butler is very respectful of Negrin’s intentions and gives us a real good view of all of the action.
On top of that there is some excellent singing especially by Graham Pushee in the title role. Not everyone likes to see a countertenor in this role but Pushee makes a good case for it. He’s fuller toned than most and has excellent control of his coloratura and ornamentation. He’s also a very good actor. Overall, he may be the best in this role that I have seen. The Tolomeo of Andrew Dalton makes a good foil. He’s a reedy, nasal counter tenor of an older type but that works quite well for the weak and scheming character he portrays. The Achilla of Stephen Bennett is also top notch building to a fine climax in Act 3 with “In tal’ modi si premia”. Rodney Gilchrist as Nireno doesn’t have a lot to do vocally but he’s present and contributing so much of the time that he deserves a special mention. The orchestra under Richard Hickox uses modern instruments but doesn’t go heavy or mushy.
I was initially somewhat ambivalent about Yvonne Kenny’s Cleopatra. I’ve got used to this role being sung by much younger singers than the 44 year old Kenny and it has to be that she looks and sounds very mature for Cleopatra. That said she sings with great gusto and bold coloratura. She acts well too but she does struggle a bit to be the sex kitten who seduces the stuffy Caesar. Despite this by the third act and, especially, her really committed “Da tempeste il legno infranto” I was pretty much won over by her sheer enthusiasm. There’s something of the same problem with Rosemary Gunn’s Cornelia. It’s hard to think of Ms. Gunn as the bombshell who has half of Egypt lusting after her, despite a pretty decent performance overall..
What’s not to like? Not too much really. Elizabeth Campbell’s Sesto is a bit shrill and generally not very convincing dramatically. The biggest negative though is the technical quality of the disk which scarcely does justice to Butler’s efforts. The sound, Dolby 2.0, is OK but the 4:3 picture really isn’t all that great. There’s no way one can fit 207 minutes of opera onto a single DVD9 and have great video quality. 4:3 doesn’t help either as the stage is the sets are wide but not very high (so I guess an extra bonus point for avoiding the close up trap). The subtitles are English only and the documentation is limited to a chapter list. Bottom line, a good effort rather spoiled by el cheapo production for disk(1).
This version does have the merit of being inexpensive but it’s up against strong competition from Copenhagen and Glyndebourne. Both houses offer much more recent productions at much higher technical quality. At a price.
fn1. This performance appears to be available in a different package outside North America. It has Dolby 5.1 and DTS sound tracks and, I suspect, is spread across two disks. Certainly the track numbering n the version I watched and the way it behaves if played with vlc suggests two VIDEO-TS folders crammed onto one disk.