Today my head is full of music, not economics (OK, most days my head is full of music …). Last night we saw Handel’s Julius Caesar in Egypt (Giulio Cesare in Egitto) at the Lyric. It’s the Lyric premiere of the David McVicar production from Glyndebourne in England.
Wow. I was transfixed for a full four and a half hours, which for me is certainly saying something. Everything was fantastic: singing, staging, choreography, costumes, and of course the music. I am a huge Baroque fan, and in particular I like the interplay of harpsichord and cello in Baroque music.
Think of Bollywood-style dance numbers, English colonial pith helmets, 1920s flapper wigs, a fey Egyptian king clad in belly dancer pants and a bath-to-bed routine to accompany Cleopatra’s spectacular Act 2 showpiece, sung by soprano Danielle de Niese’s super-sexy Cleopatra.
It’s all there in McVicar’s lavish, eye-filling staging, which honors the wit and seriousness of Handel’s original while never forgetting why most people went to the opera back in his day, and why they have kept going to the opera ever since — to be entertained.
Yes. It’s a production that is serious and high quality without taking itself too seriously. I thought the Bollywood-meets-Madonna choreography gave the production a lovely tongue-in-cheek edge. David Daniels has a beautiful countertenor voice, and I’d never really heard any live countertenor, so it was a real treat to have three in one production (although with my tin ear I had trouble distinguishing them from some of the women!). Of course there were some creative liberties and time-period incongruities (for example, at the end Cleopatra and Caesar come out in full 18th-century French style garb), but by putting together all of these different snippets of power and success through history, I think McVicar turns them into a recognizably modern turn on Handel’s conception of the quintessential “power couple”. Loved it, loved it, loved it.
My favorite scene was at the end of the first Act, where Caesar and Ptolemy meet for some chilly diplomacy. They dance, a diplomacy dance, and the music is just gorgeous. The continuo (2 cellos, bass, 2 harpsichords, and a funky big lute with a 4-foot neck called a theorbo) played absolutely brilliant percussion through the whole dance suite. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat and tapping my foot and hand along with them. It was beautiful. And the dance choreography captured the chilly diplomacy with great elegance and humor.
Another great feature was having a woman as conductor, French harpsichordist Emmanuelle Haim. From John von Rhein’s second review:
Putting it all together in the pit is French conductor Emmanuelle Haim, a spirited, stylish Handelian who inspires the orchestra to play with the articulations and inflections of a period band. That she should be Lyric’s first maestra is appropriate for a company that’s had two women general managers for most of its history.
She both conducted and played second harpsichord. Brilliant, energetic, sprightly. She actually brought a tear to my eye during the bows at the end, because when she came up on stage she was absolutely beaming, and after encouraging the orchestra to take their bows, she turned to join the singers with a little leap of enthusiasm. Rarely do I see such an accomplished and successful woman have such an unabashed sense of life, and be so willing to share and display it so openly. I felt a moment of kindred spirit-ness there …
Its Glyndebourne production, with some different singers, is available on DVD. I think I know what’s on my Christmas list!