Sadly this was not the recent MET Live broadcast. I had been planning on going to that all season but when it finally came time there were too many scheduling obstacles. Fortunately, I was able to watch what I believe was the same David McVicar production at Glyndebourne. This had Sarah Connolly* as Cesare, Danielle de Neise as Cleopatra, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by William Christie.
I’m a big fan of Handel and this opera is the perfect demonstration of why. The music is vibrant and lively and just all around great to listen to. The man can write a hell of a melody. Bach may have been the King of Counterpoint but Handel was Emperor of Tunes. Yes, the constant da capo issue makes each aria about 4 minutes longer than they “need to be” by today’s standards but it didn’t really bother me. What I thought was funny was the disparity between the amount of libretto to the amount of music. The librettist writes 3 sentences, Handel makes 6 minutes of music out of it. Hell, give the guy an open vowel and he goes to town for a solid 90 seconds.
The story goes from zero to severed head in, like, nothing flat so there is that. Who says Baroque opera is boring? This plot was pretty exciting. Ptolemy reached levels of “Salome Crazy” at times. I’m pretty sure “Salome Crazy” is a real opera term. It is in this household, anyway. Anyhow, this is a long opera but it never felt bloated or unnecessary (other than the da capo convention, of course).
The production and staging were brilliant, in my opinion. I loved the “British Colonial Period” dress, the action on stage (great bookends of the cleaning crew at the start and end of the opera – yes, I just reiterated what “bookends” means), lots of dance, and just lovely to look at. Cleopatra was clearly having more fun than everyone else – and shouldn’t it be that way? And the makeup was so good it took me a while to believe that Cesare was being sung by a soprano.
Come to think of it, there is only one low voice in the whole opera: Ptolemy’s thug who delivers that severed head. Other than this one baritone, everyone was in the higher vocal range (all the other male roles were either countertenors a trouser role). What I also found interesting was Handel’s use of the orchestra. We don’t think of Baroque composers and orchestration very much but we should. Handel used a lot of different colors to set each aria which kept the overall consistent texture/tempo issues from getting stale. I don’t know how many of those choices were made by the ensemble instead of Handel but my money is on the big G. F.