Thursday, 24 March 2016

Georg Friedrich Händel, Giulio Cesare in Egitto - Semperoper Dresden

Performance 22nd March

In 2009 Jens-Daniel Herzog (staging) and Mathias Neidhardt (stage design & costumes) set their adaptation of Handel’s most popular opera in the 1930s. The Roman soldiers’ ochre uniforms remind us of the British occupation of Egypt around 1900, and the costumes of the Egyptians are also appropriate for this period. All the signs are that the action takes place at the turn of the last century: Cesare is a statesman accompanied by a photographer for important political appointments, Cleopatra is shown as a chanteuse in the Parnassus scene, and the solo violonist (Wieland Heize) in “Se in fiorito ameno prato” is also portrayed as a bar musician. The scenery is based around a constant of three blank walls defining a room. Depending on the scene, extra subdivisions were inserted, or the front of room closed. This rather successful idea made it possible to change the setting of the storyline without interrupting the action or music. However, certain scene changes were unfortunately very loud and disruptive. Small weaknesses in the interpretation include the unnecessary violence – why does Tolomeo have to kill his defeated enemies one by one with a shot in the head? – and the inexplicable resurrection of the previously killed Tolomeo and Achilla, who wait expectantly to see whether the bomb in the briefcase will explode at the end of the opera. A variation from the usual interpretations is the assassination of Tolomeo: it is not Sesto kills him, to avenge the death of his father Pompeo – who is played by Robert Thile and appears again and again as “l’ombra del genitore” on stage –, but Cesare, who knifes him from behind. Maybe that’s the reason why Cornelia and Setso sit aggrieved on the edge of the stage at the end of the opera. Ramses Sigl was the choreographer of this production. He adds dance to the instrumental music, ensemble numbers and arias, as was common in Händel’s time; however, his choreography frequently evokes a flavour of Musical Theatre.
As in the premiere of the new production in 2009, Alessandro De Marchi was the musical director. The orchestra, which consisted of members of the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden and guest musicians on historical instruments, responded well to his direction to produce a nuanced performance. It was without a doubt the mixture of modern and historical instruments that ensured the unique and special sound of the orchestra. The two continuo groups (one in the left and one in the right side of the pit) deserve special mention for their excellent agility and sensitivity to the singers. Also outstanding was Wieland Heinze’s violin solo in “Se in fiorito ameno prato” at the beginning of the second act. He and David Hansen (Cesare) competed musically with each other, much to the amusement of the audience. This involved repeating and elaborating on each other’s cadenzas, including the whistling and the beginning of the German national anthem (both from Hansen). Unfortunately the horn solo in “Va tacito e nascosto” was not well-played, and included several cracked notes. This solo has undoubtedly been given better performances on even natural horns, not to mention on modern-day horns with valves, as was the case here.
The title role was sung by David Hansen. Unfortunately the Australian wasn’t convincing in the middle or lower register, being barely audible in places, although this improved during the course of the evening. But his higher tones – from around c2 upwards – were brilliant, and he showed more of it in elegant ornamentation in the da capo arias. The only thing that was very distracting was his movement of the upper body when singing coloratura passages. The role of Cornelia was filled by the American mezzo soprano Tichina Vaughn. She grabbed the audience’s attention with her darker colouring and sang the arias of a dolorous widow and worried mother with a beautifully clear melodic line and powerful, expressive voice. Her sound harmonised excellently with the brighter colouring of Jana Kurucová (Sesto), which was clearly heard in their duet “Son nata a lagrimar”. Kurucová characterised Sesto as a hesitant boy who gained in boldness as the performance progressed. She managed pearling coloraturas as well as fine melodies, such as the middle section of the aria “Svegliatevi nel core, furie d’un alma offesa”. That being said, the best singer of the evening was, in my opinion, Matthew Shaw in the role of Tolomeo. In his flowing coloraturas, which were sung effortlessly, it seemed as though his breath would go on forever. The timbre of his voice was pleasant and he had a wide palette of colours appropriate to each situation. I almost wished he would have sung the role of Cesare as he did in 2009/10 in Dortmund and Kiel, so as to hear more of his beautiful voice. The role of Cleopatra was sung by Elena Gorshunova. Like the other singers, she was knowledgeable about the style of baroque ornamentation required by the da capo arias, but she didn’t always manage it in the best way. Sometimes she seemed to insert some high tones just for the sake of it, regardless of whether they fitted the melody or not. With her flexible and clear voice she sang the coloraturas, like in “Da tempeste il legno infranto” without problems, and the change of emotions, e.g. “Piangerò la sorte mia”, presented no difficulties for her. Other roles were sung by Allen Boxer (Curio), Evan Hughes (Achilla), who presented a very flexible bass-baritone, and Yosemeh Adjei (Nireno), who sang his only aria “Chi perde un momento“ with bravery and mastered his recitatives in the same way.
I would give this production 9 stars (a half each being deducted for the set/choreography and musical deficits).
Reviewed by Katharina Schiller

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