I came, I saw, I picnicked

The DVD of the 2005 Glyndebourne Festival production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of the most satisfying that I have ever got my hands on. David McVicar’s production is a delight. The cast is consistently excellent with stand out performances from Sarah Connolly as Caesar and Danni de Niese as Cleopatra. William Christie gets wonderful playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The production for DVD/Blu-ray is exceptional in every way. There’s even over an hour of worthwhile extras giving a total of over five hours of material.

Let’s start with the production. McVicar and his design team have placed the action firmly in Egypt but moved the time period to the late 19th century with the Romans being portrayed in the manner of the British who effectively ruled Egypt at the time. There are a number of elements taken from Bollywood musicals which seems to have led some reviewers to dismiss it as not being “serious” enough to be a proper Handel production. I think this is misguided. The Bollywood elements are well integrated dramatically and musically and serve a dramatic purpose. They point up the cultural rift between the Romans and the Egyptians without getting into a crude and heavy critique of colonialism. There are a few places where Andrew George’s choreography is a bit over the top but mostly it works and, if nothing else, it’s tremendous fun. McVicar has obviously worked really hard on the and all the main characters and their interactions are clearly defined. The gulf between Romans and Egyptians emerges through these relationships though perhaps the rather overwrought Sesto of Angelika Kirchschlager somewhat undermines the chilly memsahib Cornelia of Patricia Bardon. Throughout there are neat little touches like Cleopatra ditching her cigarette in the urn containing Pompey’s ashes or the Roman/British warships sailing into Alexandria harbour with airship cover during Da tempeste il legno infranto. At the very end, Achilla and Tolomeo, blood soaked, (both are dead at this point) reappear and flank the line of seated dignitaries sipping champagne. It’s weird but works. Notably the production team got one of the biggest ovations of the night when they appeared for a curtain call.

The individual performances range from very good indeed to spectacular. Musically the star is Sarah Connolly. She’s utterly brilliant with completely secure coloratura and ornaments that are far more than just decorative.  Right from Empio, dirò, tu sei where she manages to spit out her disgust while maintaining 100% musicality, to the very end she’s note perfect. Her acting is also really good. She covers a wide range of emotions and her physical acting is genuinely masculine. She really does not look or move like a woman in drag. Then there’s Danielle de Niese! Musically there may be subtler or more refined exponents of the art of Handelian singing but I doubt whether there are any who could handle the role Danni is handed here. (Jane Archibald maybe, just maybe). She sings very well in fact. Some of her big numbers are very well done indeed and Piangerò la sorte mia is very fine and she’s very clever vocally in Da tempeste il legno infranto here she works some ornamentation in to accompany miming firing a sub-machine gun. But singing is only a fraction of the work she gets through. She has a lot of physical acting and several major dance numbers. She’s a very good dancer and, of course, she really looks the part. It’s really quite a performance!

Patricia Bardon acts well in a chilly way and sings beautifully. Priva son d’ogni confortois a real tear jerker. Kirchschlager sings very well but is a bit overwrought in the acting department and doesn’t really come across as a young man set on revenge. Rachid Ben Abdeslam is wonderful as Nireno. He gets the basically scaredy cat (and somewhat effeminate) functionary spot on. Chris Maltman is an appropriately brutal and coarse Achilla without letting the coarseness affect his singing. Alexander Ashworth in a kilt, is a solid, if unexciting, Curio but that’s the role. Christophe Dumaux is brilliant as Tolomeo. He looks like Captain Darling from Blackadder Goes Forth and is similarly petty and petulant. He’s also a vicious, spoiled bully and narcissist. Dumaux brings out all these aspects while singing at the highest level. It’s almost up there with de Niese and Connolly. The musical direction and orchestral playing is of the highest order.

Glyndebourne has been really well treated on video in recent years and this Opus Arte release is no exception.  The production for DVD is both excellent and opulent. The DVD version is spread across three disks (the Blu-ray gets two which is remarkable!). The video direction, by Robin Lough, is sympathetic and unobtrusive. The production was filmed in 1080i (which is what one gets on the Blu-ray) and the DVD rendering of the picture is about as good as DVD gets. The audio choices on DVD are LPCM stereo and DTS 5.0 with the latter being superior. In fact it’s superb; maybe the best sound I’ve come across on DVD. The fidelity with which the brass and woodwinds are captured is exceptional. The Sinfonia just before the final scene is thrilling to listen to. I’d really like to hear what the PCM 5.0 track on the Blu-ray sounds like. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles. Besides a synopsis and cast gallery there are two documentaries incluced. There’s a “making of” called, appropriately “Entertainment is not a dirty word” and a feature on “Danielle de Niese and the Glyndebourne experience”. It’s rather touching as Danni gushes over what an amazing place Glyndebourne is and interviews Gus Christie about what it’s like to live there. I’d like to see the follow up with Mrs Gus Christie, chatelaine!

This really should be watched by anyone who thinks baroque opera is difficult and boring and needs to be dumbed down for the average audience. But I don’t suppose he’s listening.

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18 thoughts on “I came, I saw, I picnicked

  1. I loved this one too – Connolly had me from the get go. De Niese isn’t my favorite Handel singer, but I agree with you completely that she’s very charming here. And the production itself is an utter riot in the best way. (The machine-gun bit during ‘da tempeste’ still makes me laugh whenever I see it).

  2. This is absolutely my favourite opera DVD, and you’ve done a good summary for us. I agree with all your comments – except those about Sesto. I think the thing here is that he is not a young man, but rather a child who is suddenly thrust into an untenable situation where he is expected by his rather stiff unbending (as you say memsahib) mother to avenge his dead father, You see what he has gone through at the end when only he can see the ghosts on stage, clearly severely traumatised by what he has had to do.

    • Thanks! I do take your point about Sesto. That’s clearly what McVicar intends. My problem with it it that it somewhat undermines the contrast between the “wily, Oriental” Egyptians and the “stiff, public school” Roman/Brits. I’m now wondering what age Sesto is supposed to be.

  3. Well, I suppose you could look at it as a rite of passage (in fact like a brutal public school) for the vulnerable child Sesto into becoming a stiff upper lip Empire sahib. It’s interesting that Cornelia shows no sympathy or compassion for Sesto in the last scene – he’s just supposed to grit his teeth and put up with his fears and emotions.

    As you say, we have to wonder what age Sesto is supposed to be. If you look at his clothes when he first appears, I’d say 11 or 12 (he reminds me of Miles in the film of Turn of the Screw)- younger than any Sesto in other productions I’ve seen. I think McVicar has given us an interesting and well thought-out take on what could otherwise be a bit of a stock character.

    • Yes, if one reads him as 11 or 12 it works. My partner and I had the discussion and came out with 15ish, at which point a son of Pompey would definitely have been expected to stop blubbing and get on with the paternal vengeance.

      • Of course (according to Wikipedia) the real Sextus Pompeius was 19 when his father was killed. But since the opera bears about as much resemblance to history as a Baroque painting does to an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, I guess a younger interpretation can work.

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