Handel’s Giulio Cesare is pretty well served in terms of video recordings. The very fine Glyndebourne and Copenhagen versions get some serious competition from the 2012 production that inaugurated Cecilia Bartoli’s reign as director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. The production is by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. It’s set in somewhere like Iraq in an immediately post-war period. It’s quite dark, probably darker than Negrin’s in Copenhagen and world’s away from McVicar’s almost RomCom version. There’s a lot of violence and some pretty sleazy sex. A lot of this centres around Tolomeo who is portrayed as beyond revolting. There’s a scene where he rips guts out of a statue of Caesar and starts to gnaw on them and there is a fair bit in that vein. Caesar and Cleopatra are portrayed ambiguously too. Sure they are the “heroes” of the piece but Cleopatra’s delight in flogging off her country’s oil wealth to the Romans shows a degree of cynicism. This is not a production for the Konzept averse but I think all the choices made have a point and the overall effect is coherent. It’s not without humour either. Cleopatra sings V’adore pupille in a 70s blonde wig while riding a cruise missile with Caesar watching through 3D glasses.
There are some interesting casting choices. All four high “male” roles are given to countertenors though with a twist. Nireno has been swapped out for Nirena, sung by a countertenor in drag. It’s an extraordinarily fine set of countertenors too. Andreas Scholl, in the title role, is as good here as in Copenhagen. Christophe Dumaux is totally committed to his portrayal of Tolomeo… shudder. Jochen Kowalski plays it pretty straight as Nirena, which works, and Philippe Jaroussky makes Sesto somehow more credible than usual.
Of course, the title role goes to Bartoli. It’s a typical Bartoli performance. If you have seen her do “sex kitten” you will know what to expect. Yes, she rocks a corsetted leather minidress and thigh boots despite the best efforts of parts of her body to escape. She is totally charming, often quite funny, and also effective in the darker scenes. Singing Piangero with a sack over her head is not the least of her achievements. Cornelia is sung by Anne Sofie von Otter who does seem more the dignified Roman matron than the bombshell that every male in sight wants to bed but there yo go. The low male voices; Ruben Drole as Achilla and Peter Kalman as Curio are adequate but don’t seem quite in the same league.
The real glory of this recording though is the music making. Scholl, Bartoli and von Otter, in particular, give pretty much a text book display of how to sing Handel. It’s highly affecting and technically brilliant at the same time; utterly precise coloratura, brilliant runs, excellent use of ornamentation and genuine baroque trills coupled with exquisite tone colour and expression. The other singers are all very good too and the playing of Il Giardino Armonico is, again, absolutely idiomatic. Excellent choices and balance throughout too from conductor Giovanni Antonini. The first part of Act 2 where V’adore pupille is followed in succession by Caesar’s Se in fiorito ameno prato and Cornelia’s Deh piangete is about as good as baroque music making gets.
Technically this disk is very good indeed. The picture on Blu-ray is gorgeous 1080i with choice of LPCM stereo or DTS-HD surround sound. Both tracks are clear and well balanced. Olivier Simmonet’s video direction is unobtrusive which is just fine with me. There are no extras on the disk but the explanatory material in the booklet is helpful and worth reading. Subtitle options are English, French and German.
At this point I don’t think I could pick a favourite among the available modern recordings of Giulio Cesare. The McVicar production with brilliant performances, in their own ways, by Sarah Connolly and Danni de Niese is definitely the most “fun” version and technically is one the finest Blu-ray releases to date. That said, this new version has technically finer singing, especially from Bartoli, an intriguing production and very high technical values too.