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by George Frideric Handel

Andreas Scholl as Giulio Cesare, 2005

Audio sample info:  Alma del gran Pompeo from Giulio Cesare in Egitto.

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A very human Caesar

In the third performance of Giulio Cesare (Royal Danish Theatre, Copenhagen, May 2002), Andreas Scholl’s singing was absolutely divine, from his very first appearance to the curtain fall.  As for the question of whether his rendering of the proud and powerful Julius Caesar was convincing enough, I did not miss a 'sovereign' or 'dominating' dimension in his characterisation, within the framework of this particular production.  I am grateful to directors whose historical approach consciously avoids sticking to the old cliché of ‘Caesar the invincible and fearless conqueror’ as conveyed by a more or less blurred vision of ancient history.  The historical reality was probably very different from the generous, pure-hearted warrior-in-love featured as the lead role in Handel’s opera. (In Rodelinda, I had particularly appreciated that the director, Villégiers, had chosen a timeless, historically undefined stage setting to emphasise the interaction between the characters as human beings rather than as historical characters, but who knows about the Lombard king, Bertarido?)   Caesar, of course, is a universal, historical and legendary figure and we are bound to see Handel’s Giulio Cesare through the prism of the stereotype we are used to, in films, plays and books.  This poses a tremendous challenge to directors who want to shine fresh light on such figures and create a character both historically and humanly convincing.

I am at a loss to understand why Handel’s Giulio Cesare is thought to be a more complex and complete character than Bertarido, irrespective of the number of arias Caesar is given. When I first read the libretto, without hearing the music, I was surprised to find that Caesar – albeit the main character – was not really the dominant figure of the opera.  During the greater part of the story, before he finally takes up arms to defend himself and save Cleopatra, he is the object of both Tolomeo’s plotting and Cleopatra’s seduction plans, confronted with a series of faits accomplis including Pompeo’s murder, Lydia’s fake identity and Tolomeo’s treachery.

Caesar sings powerful arias like Al lampo dell’armi  and Quel torrente, ravishing love arias like Non è sivago and the jewel Se in fiorito, but I desperately miss in his character (I’m talking of the music itself, not interpretation) the emotional conflicts and tragedy underlying the human intensity and heartrending beauty of Bertarido’s arias.

Andreas Scholl’s acting was not always quite up to the perfect control and expressive power he had reached in Paris (Rodelinda, 2002) but he acted well and very genuinely.  The noble bearing and tremendous expressivity which impressed us so much in Paris and which we missed, sometimes, in Copenhagen, is very much associated with the aura of tragedy surrounding Bertarido from the moment of his entrance in Rodelinda.  It must be easier for an actor/singer to develop a full character of flesh and blood on this ground.  When Caesar first enters the stage, he is crowned with the glory of his military victory but, as a character, he is still a blank page - we know nothing of his feelings and psychology.

One of Andreas Scholl’s arias which impressed me most in Copenhagen – and here there was a striking similarity with his breathtakingly angry Confusa si miri as Bertarido – was Empio diro tu sei in Act I, in which a very human character, with a sense of honour and of justice, is seen through the pride of the conqueror.  Caesar shouts his anger and revolt at Tolomeo’s army commander, Achilla, who has brought him the head of Pompeo.  I can still see Caesar standing behind Achilla, who turns his back to avoid the Roman’s dagger-like, accusing glance and somehow suddenly seems much smaller.  Caesar stands like a rock, his whole body tensed with fury, hurling endless bursts of coloratura at the face of his enemy, the leitmotiv sei tutto crudelta hammered over and over again, like mighty waves breaking against a cliff face.

Another powerful image from this aria is Caesar placing his hands on the shoulders of the frail and hopeless Sesto, son of the assassinated Pompeo.  It is a gesture of comfort, yes, but one which also expresses Caesar’s revulsion.  Their eyes are locked and the contrast in their expressions and bearing is striking.  Young Sesto, paralysed, silent grief incarnate, and great Caesar, trembling with anger, his hands clenched on Sesto’s shoulders as if to communicate to him the power of his wrath and the retribution which Caesar intends shall come!

Caesar’s Alma del gran Pompeo in Act I was a remarkable combination of superb singing and tremendous visual intensity, supported very well by apt and well-conceived staging.  (There were many excellent elements in this staging concept).  Caesar kneels down in front of Pompeo's funeral urn, reflecting on the fragility of human life, in perhaps the only moment which allows us an insight into his thoughts and psychology.  This was one of the most beautiful musical moments in the whole opera and it gives me goose flesh when it creeps back into my memory.  It might sound paradoxical since it is more like an arioso than an aria but the text has extraordinarily deep resonance and evocative power.  Half-sung, half-declaimed like a poem or an ode, it offers us a mesmerising illustration of two of the most fascinating aspects of Andreas Scholl’s singing: his crystal-clear diction (he does not only sing the words – he lets the words sing) and the inimitable bright-dark colour in the lower register of his rich countertenor voice, those low, lingering notes which convey so well the frailty and vulnerability of human life, as in the text, but also the heaviness and tragic aspect of human destiny.

In Copenhagen, this solo was not merely treasure for the ears but also a scene of great visual intensity.  The grave beauty and contemplative atmosphere of Caesar’s monologue in the foreground contrasted powerfully with the silent horror of the scene unfolding behind him.  Here, we see the re-enactment of Pompeo’s murder, a nightmarish vision, with Tolomeo’s men casting threatening shadows on the wall beside which kneels Great Pompeo.  Instead of a literal re-enactment, we see Pompeo slowly pacing away, gradually swallowed up by the dark background as Caesar’s last words die away.  This dual composition holds the watcher’s gaze and creates a strange atmosphere, heavy with threat.  It took my breath away and I very much regretted that the audience did not, apparently, share this feeling, but they were immediately distracted by the entry of Cleopatra.

The direction team worked effectively with colour effects and, in this regard, was impressive. Striking colour schemes underlined the conflict between the production’s modern and traditional elements.  Pale, sand-coloured walls adorned with Egyptian symbols were contrasted with very intense, vivid colours like the purple of Pompeo’s toga, the red of the luminous halo that surrounds the tomb after the murder scene and the bloody graffito of Tolomeo’s name on its stone wall.  I wish the production team had worked more in this way instead of using massive and gratuitous comic effects, regrettably reducing the concept to a tragi-comic scheme. Comic effects are possible in an opera seria provided they are subtle and serve to highlight a particular aspect of a scene or character, but if they are there merely to get the audience slapping their thighs with hilarity they can seriously impair the reception of both the music and the drama.   This is not to say that the effects used in this Giulio Cesare did not work well – quite the contrary.  For example, the confrontation between Tolomeo and Caesar, which features the famous and magnificent hunt aria Va tacito, one of the much-anticipated highlights.  I don’t deny that the comic ups and downs of the thrones of Caesar and Tolomeo were intelligently thought out, well co-ordinated with the music and well supported by the excellent acting of Christopher Robson and Andreas Scholl, whose singing was not affected in the slightest by the dynamics of this scene.  (I would have had a fit of vertigo in his shoes.)  I laughed my head off.  However, my laughter caught in my throat because I could not help feeling that what was happening on the stage was not doing justice to Handel’s music.

During this aria’s recitative, I was struck once more by Andreas Scholl’s superb diction and his ability to use the phonetic expressiveness of every word to express the unspoken, hidden hints in the text.  For example, when he presents his compliments to Tolomeo and compares the tyrant to the sun, he abruptly drops his voice and stresses the word terra in a way that clearly suggests Tolomeo’s earthly meanness.  He made the audience giggle but this was legitimate, intelligent acting, drawing the attention of the audience to the true significance of the text.  Such details tell us a lot about Andreas Scholl’s growing skill as an opera singer.  Never before had I heard him sing Va tacito with such sovereign majesty and royal irony.  But did the audience actually grasp the vocal quality of his performance in this scene?  I doubt it.  I could not help a twinge when the salvo of audience laughter, as Tolomeo sank below stage-level, almost drowned Andreas Scholl’s voice.  The laughter and rhythmic clapping at the end of this scene were clearly for the acting and not for the aria itself.   Many people seemed to think: 'Good acting, great effects.  Nice music, too.'   My neighbours in the back rows on the premiere evening were constantly swivelling their heads so as not to miss a scrap of the thrones-up-and-down effects, and it seemed to me that it would have been all the same if Cesare had sung merely 'la-la-la'.   Is it necessary – or even acceptable – to make the audience laugh loudly during a masterpiece like Va tacito?  Having heard Andreas Scholl sing it several times on the concert platform, I know that this music is fascinating and evocative enough to hold an audience spellbound without the help of stage gimmicks.  Moreover, the effect of such comic business often lasts longer than the scene in which it occurs.  The audience learns to expect more of the same.  When they are encouraged to laugh once, they want to laugh again.  Here, it created an atmosphere of underlying hilarity which surged out again and again, as in the shark scene – and in almost every scene featuring Tolomeo.

Even more concerning was the way the directors reduced to near-parody what could have been the pure enchantment of Cleopatra’s rapturous aria V’adoro pupille.  There is undeniably a touch of irony and a deliberate wink (from Handel) at the audience in this scene, a kind of mise-en-scène within the mise-en scène.  Cleo is determined to give Caesar's heart a final blow and we know that she will not spare any effort to achieve her goal. This is suggested by Nireno’s slightly ironic pomposity when he introduces Cleo’s 'show', saying: 'Let him, who is a follower of love, learn of Cleopatra’s wiles and deceits'.  This leads one to expect to share Caesar’s wonder and emotion as the curtain rises to unveil what we think will be a vision of enchantments.

V’adoro pupille is much more than artifice and fireworks – it is one of Handel’s most magnificent love arias.  In this production, the pink of Cleo’s ball-gown and the blue of her divan did not matter but the staging was so conventional, almost clichéd, that the spell was immediately broken, so the audience started to giggle loudly even before the reason for it, the superscription Blot til lyst (everything is comedy), was revealed.  This Danish witticism turned the giggles into loud laughter, casting an unpleasant, derisive light on a scene which ought to suggest, beyond mere seduction, the development of a true passion between the two main characters.

After the gag, one needed that indefinable something, call it grace or inspiration, to salvage the proper magic of this moment, but I could not make it out in Mrs Dam-Jensen’s interpretation of V’adoro pupille.   However, she was great as an actress throughout the performance and I particularly remember her entrance on premiere night, and her aria Non disperar, in which she ridicules her brother’s ambitions.  In Tu la mia stella, praising the power of beauty and love, I was pleasingly impressed by the earthy, sensuous and sparkling quality of her voice and by her very self-assured, dominant stage presence.  Unfortunately, I grew more and more irritated by the way she used and even abused her permanent vibrato.   Any weakness in her performance was the exact opposite of Andreas Scholl’s, by which I mean that her voice was not always able to convey the wide range of emotions and expressions conveyed by her acting.  She was masterful in acting out the tragic, pivotal turning point of the plot, when the ambitious, seductive queen turns into a desperate woman in love, suddenly faced with utter loss.  And her hauntingly beautiful Se pieta will remain one the most memorable moments of this Copenhagen production.

Christopher Robson as Tolomeo inspired very contradictory feelings.  His voice made my hair stand on end at first and yet, five days later, I found myself queuing for his autograph!  The reason is simple.  However much his voice may repel or inspire the listener, this man is a real genius – and he was brilliantly repulsive as Tolomeo.  I am so angry at myself for not having had the guts to say to Mr. Robson: 'You were deliciously disgusting!'  Well…  At his first appearance (during Cleo’s Non disperar) I feared that the directors had reduced Tolomeo to a spineless, conceited, foolish young man, overwhelmed by his sister’s cunning and royal self-assurance.   He proved me wrong as soon as he opened the mouth for his first solo aria and, from this point on, I could only make a bow in front of such acting abilities and sheer operatic talent.  The thin, insipid voice which made me shake my head at the beginning completely took me aback by its capacity for transformation.  He was a vocal chameleon, capable of abrupt changes of colour and intonation, from the sourest to the syrupy, from the shrieking to the venomous, conveying every facet of Tolomeo’s personality: complacency, lasciviousness, cruelty and latent violence.  His voice would swell to an unexpected volume, filling the whole theatre with accents of hatred and contempt, and then fall again, undulating, creeping. He evoked with great precision the cold threat of the snake, stretching its neck, ready to bite and surround its victim, as when Tolomeo hangs around the chair to which poor Cornelia is tied, singing Be-ee-el-la....

Much as I appreciated Christopher Robson’s performance, I did not accept the concept of his character in this production.  His talents were often used to comedic effect as in the aria-in-the-shower scene.  The France Musiques commentator for the live broadcast felt obliged to concoct an elegant lie to justify the burst of laughter at this scene, and mask its cause.  He said something like: 'Well, you may have been surprised at hearing so much laughter in an opera seria, but it is at the expense of the villain Tolomeo, whose advances to Cornelia are still unsuccessful.'   No, the audience hilarity had little to do with the plot itself but would better have suited a light comedy than an opera of Handel.

Nevertheless, there were moments in this opera where all criticism, reservations, quibbling and hair-splitting as to the pros and cons of the concept were nullified by one feeling, one reality: pure bliss.  The warmth and intensity of the audience response to Se in fiorito was much – so much – more than mere delight and admiration at this charming duet in which Andreas Scholl and the first violin vied with each other in virtuosity and agility.  It had something of the spontaneous joy and marvel of children going to the theatre for the first time.  It felt as though the violinist, instead of going up on stage, had come down to the audience, along with Andreas Scholl:  The Voice and The Music hand in hand, to share with us the magic of their encounter.  This aria was both the expected highlight of Act II and an exquisite intermezzo devoted to the sheer pleasure of music, beyond the limits of stage and time.

In Act III, as Andreas Scholl’s voice rises for the first Aaaaure – deh, per pieta, what happened was precisely what I had missed in Inger Dam-Jensen's V’adoro pupille: that indefinite something that makes you drown in the music and lose your grip on reality.  Earlier, our charming theatre tour guide had explained that, during some performances, the audience had been amazed to hear a voice coming from the very top of the ceiling (someone singing from a small gallery in the theatre cupola).  Andreas Scholl did not need this trick to lift you from your chair and take you to vertiginous heights from which you never come back totally unhurt.  Those soft, quivering notes in the final al mio dolor … how such a light sound can give you such a mighty blow in your heart, I will never know.

A short digression, here.  There is much discussion about the alleged coldness of Andreas Scholl’s voice.  The most mystifying aspect of the ‘warm/cold voice’ debate is that it suggests the possibility to localise emotion in a voice, physically as it were, as though musical emotion can be reduced to measurable, superficial effects like vibrato, emphasis or volume.  It is often said – and who could deny it? – that Andreas Scholl’s voice is extremely pure, but ‘pure’ does not necessarily means ethereal or disembodied, adjectives often associated with his voice, and which mean – more or less explicitly – a lack of a human or passionate dimension.  If anything is missing in Andreas Scholl’s voice, it is the self-indulgent flourishes, vanity and counterfeit pathos which characterise many highly-praised, ‘warm’ operatic voices but which simply smother true emotion in an endless flood of syrupy vibrato.  The emotions which Andreas Scholl evokes and communicates with his voice do not rely on artifice or superficial seduction.  These are the emotions at the very heart of the music.  Some people cannot hear this, including  some recognised, eminent music specialists.  I pity them, not Andreas Scholl.   So many people with no knowledge of vocal techniques, messa di voce, coloratura or rubato are moved to tears by his voice while the so-called warm voices leave them completely unmoved.

One of my most precious memories of Copenhagen is of a very old couple sitting just in front of me.  I have a very bad habit at concerts – I always spend minutes looking surreptitiously at my neighbours’ faces, trying to read their emotions.  As soon as Andreas Scholl began to sing, they turned to each other and smiled, their eyes locked.  It was very touching, and it clearly meant:  'Thank you for sharing this with me – and thanks to him for giving us this shared happiness.'   I seemed to see their lost youth in their radiant eyes.   It happened many times and, each time, I shouted silently at the pompous critics: 'Please come down off your pedestals of erudition, for once, and forget your hackneyed prejudices.  Look at these people’s faces and learn about emotion in music!'

Palle Knudsen played Achilla.  The most remarkable feature about his rich and brawny baritone was its ability to convey with equal intensity both the brutality of his character and the crack in his emotional armour as his growing passion for Cornelia tests his accustomed insensitivity.  This was very apparent in his vibrant, terrifying Tu sei il cor.

The great surprise of this opera was Tuva Semmingsen’s Sesto.  Before I saw her performance, I had had a rather negative vision of Sesto as a monolithic, one-dimensional figure simply obsessed with revenge.  It took Miss Semmingsen only few minutes to prove me wrong, and in a masterly manner. Her voice may well mature and gain in resonance, but it was amazing, in Copenhagen, to hear such a light voice express, with poignant authenticity, the conflicting feelings in this young boy who is forced to kill in order to avenge his father, restore the honour of his mother, and grow into a man.  It was really thrilling to see this frail figure communicating to the audience the tremendous strength of Sesto's will, as in her vibrant first aria Svegliatevi nel core in which she managed, with  her single, clenched fist and her formidable stage presence, to conjure a vision of a whole army taking up arms.  When she sang the luminous Cara speme, her face seemed illuminated more by the inner glow of her determination and hope than by the flame in which she turns the blade of her dagger.  Sesto’s gorgeous duet with Cornelia at the end of Act I is, for me (in the music itself, not the interpretation), the most beautiful, most heart-wrenchingly moving aria of this opera.

Randy Stene was Cornelia.  Although her dark mezzo was quite colourful in the low register, I sometimes missed the velvet, glorious sound of Bernarda Fink’s Cornelia.  However, Mrs Stene’s physical presence on stage is so genuinely convincing and powerful that I simply cannot dissociate the voice from the character itself.  For me she was Cornelia, in every single move and gesture, in her proud bearing, in her dignity and sorrow.  She was not at all a stiff tragic epitome.  She very successfully conveyed Cornelia’s tragedy by the sheer intensity of her acting – and it would have taken a heart of stone not to be moved to tears when she put her hand on her dead husband’s head.  Paradoxically enough, it was Cornelia’s character that suffered most from the misplaced comic excesses - although Mrs Stene was, along with Tuva Semmingsen’s outstanding Sesto, an excellent counterbalance to the overplayed burlesque.

Nireno and Curio are rather unrewarding parts but James Huw Jeffries and Sten Byriel performed them with elegance and unfailing competence.  James Huw Jeffries could perhaps have made an excellent dancer!  The ease and grace with which he moved on the stage irresistibly evoked the image of a fairy tale figure.

As for Andreas Scholl, overall I think his range of possibilities as Giulio Cesare was considerably reduced by both Francesco Negrin’s direction and the inherent limits of the role.  it is evident that he has gained tremendously in self-confidence on stage and that he thoroughly enjoys doing opera.  The Andreas Scholl we saw in Copenhagen overwhelmed us once more by the sheer, ever-growing mastery of his singing abilities.

Text based on a review by a member of the Andreas Scholl Society

Copyright ©  2002 the Andreas Scholl Society and the author who wishes to remain anonymous



by Patrick O'Connor, Opera magazine

At the Royal Theatre (May 22, 2002) curiosity was naturally focused for Francisco Negrin's new production of Giulio Cesare on Andreas Scholl, undertaking the title role for the first time on stage.  In his scarlet general's uniform and desert boots, he towered over the diminutive Cleopatra of Inger Dam-Jensen and they made a most convincing pair of lovers.  Scholl's voice, though not large even by counter-tenor standards, nevertheless has a superb clarity which can fill a big space.  In the future I imagine that he will make even more of Va tacito, but on this occasion some of its subtleties were sacrificed to the action, with Cesare and Tolomeo indulging in one-upmanship as each ascended higher, seated on thrones atop movable plinths.  The high points of the evening came in Act 3, with a fluid account of Aure, deh, pietà, in which Scholl was joined on stage by a violinist as Zephyr* and then the duet Piu amabile beltà, Scholl’s voice blending with that of Dam-Jensen to achieve a floating ethereal quality.  Dam-Jensen played Cleopatra as a mixture of sex-kitten and tomboy.  Her physical virtuosity was constantly impressive; she sang V'adoro pupille high on a staircase and Piangerò la sorte mia while handcuffed.

Decorations were kept to a minimum, but when they were used, for instance, in Da tempeste, they were always dramatically purposeful. Christopher Robson's Tolomeo suggested layers of corruption and decadence, pawing Cleopatra and Cornelia while eyeing Achilla as well.  He may have achieved some sort of record for singing one aria naked in a shower-bath.  His harsher-edged counter-tenor made an interesting contrast with Scholl's smoother bel canto.

Randi Stene
, a dignified, impassioned Cornelia, avoided any sense of caricature and gave each aria its due weight.  The surprise of the evening was Tuva Semmingsen as Sesto, a performance of great promise and dramatic power.  She was utterly convincing as a boy, while keeping her voice poised as a soprano, in contrast with Stene's more ample mezzo.  Their duet at the end of Act 1 provided the other great moment of the evening. James Huw Jeffries was a nimble Nireno and Palle Knudsen a vivid Achilla.  Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducted Concerto Copenhagen in an exuberant performance of a very full version of the score, almost every aria given with its repeat.  The level of the orchestra pit was raised, so that the instrumentalists were visible to the singers on stage; Scholl enjoyed a moment of almost flirtatious rapport with the horn players during Va tacito.

The production, designed and staged by Negrin in collaboration with Anthony Baker, was comparatively restrained where this opera is concerned.  In modern dress, with ancient allusions in the costumes - Cleopatra's Liz Taylor-type wig, Tolomeo's flowing white robes, Sesto's burning sword - the setting was a ruined Egyptian temple. The back wall split in Act 3 to reveal the sea, from which Cesare emerged, battle-scarred.  All the players entered into the dramatic moments that kept up the tension between the characters.  At the end the audience erupted into a display of enthusiasm as great as any I've heard in an opera house for a long time.
Copyright © 2002 Opera magazine

* Not so.  The violin duet is in Se in fiorito, Act II.

I came, I saw, I sang

Richard Fairman, The Financial Times

Talk about being patient.  Andreas Scholl’s operatic career is progressing lento e non stringendo (slowly and don’t hurry me). At a time when many young singers are being pushed to far too fast, there can be no accusations of mismanagement here. It was seven or eight years ago that Scholl emerged as the counter-tenor everybody wanted to hear.  His early years were spent primarily with sacred music and it was not until 1998 that he ventured into opera, making his debut in Handel’s Rodelinda at Glyndebourne.  Then came a gap of four years with no new roles on stage – until  now. For his second operatic outing he ventured afield again, this time to the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, where last week he tried his hand at Handel’s Giulio Cesare.  It was worth the journey.
Although the production had its irritating moments, the opera was well cast, and far more of it was performed than usual: the evening lasted four and a half hours. The star at the centre of this operatic epic was – no, not Scholl, but Handel himself.  Even adding in arias that are usually cut – making nine arias for Julius Caesar , eight for Cleopatra, five for Ptolomy, etc. – the opera hardly felt a minute too long.  Handel must have enjoyed composing Giulio Cesare.  His music lifts these characters out of the ancient history books and makes every one of them wickedly human.

In the title role Scholl easily won over the Danish audience.  “I came, I saw, I sang” he can say triumphantly.  His coloratura is note perfect, he phrases recitatives with as much musicianship as arias, and the steadiness and purity of his voice are remarkable. The opening note of Aure, deh, per pieta was alone worth the price of the ticket.  For all that he never really managed to command the opera.  He looks more relaxed on stage these days, but then the production had him play Julius Caesar as an urbane sort of guy, who conquered nations with a glass of martini and a wink at the ladies.  A mature singer with hard-earned experience of the opera circuit might have brought it off.  Scholl’s persona remains self-effacing.

Inger Dam-Jensen gave a brilliant theatrical display as Cleopatra.  Here is a soprano who has everything – great looks, a sparkling voice that never loses its quality, glittering allure and intensity.  For one aria she even disrobed and sang from her bath.  Dam Jensen led a strong Danish contingent.  That fine, underrated mezzo Randi Stene was a deeply expressive Cornelia.  Tuva Semmingsen was light of voice for Sextus, but looked remarkably convincing, cross-dressed as an adolescent boy.  Their scenes together, as mother and son, were very touching.  The baritone Palle Knudsen gave evidence of a voice to watch as Achillas.  As Ptolemy, the visiting British counter-tenor Christopher Robson was wildly camp and entertaining.  Not to be outdone, he sang one of his arias naked in the shower.

There was harmless fun in Francisco Negrin’s production, but playing Caesar’s great aria Va Tacito for laughs, as he and Ptolemy sized up their respective thrones, was unforgivable.  No such indignities were inflicted on the music by the conductor Lars Ulrik Mortensen and the skilled period-instrument Concerto Copenhagen, which played the score admirably straight. As the audience staggered out at two minutes to midnight there was nothing to be heard but delight.

Copyright © 2002 The Financial Times     

Review 4:

by Michael Bo, Opera News

Even after four and a half hours of Royal Danish Opera's Giulio Cesare in Egitto (seen May 4, 8, 18, 22), the audience could not let go. The production made such an impact that it seemed opera in Denmark would never be the same; by the end of its all-too-short run (eight performances), fans camped in the street all night, hoping to acquire one of ten available tickets. Baroque opera is not daily fare in Copenhagen, certainly not as interpreted by original instruments or men with "girlish," treble voices. The landslide of historically informed practice that has swept the world for the past thirty years clearly missed Denmark. (Previously, Giulio Cesare had been performed in the theater only once, in 1947.)

Director Francisco Negrin has staged Cesare already (for Opera Australia and Los Angeles Opera), and clearly he feels stimulated by the story and the music. He served up a musical, gloriously entertaining mix of Astérix-style cartoonery and technically inventive neo-Baroque (wonderful opulent settings by Negrin himself and Anthony Baker). The staging offered both regal elegance and war-torn desolation: thrones were catapulted high into the air, buildings sliced in half to reveal a seashore for Caesar's "Dall'ondoso periglio." Memorably, a gigantic shark in an aquarium acted as sole witness to Cornelia's lamentations in "Cessa omai di sospirare."

Director Francisco Negrin has staged Cesare already (for Opera Australia and Los Angeles Opera), and clearly he feels stimulated by the story and the music. He served up a musical, gloriously entertaining mix of Astérix-style cartoonery and technically inventive neo-Baroque (wonderful opulent settings by Negrin himself and Anthony Baker). The staging offered both regal elegance and war-torn desolation: thrones were catapulted high into the air, buildings sliced in half to reveal a seashore for Caesar's "Dall'ondoso periglio." Memorably, a gigantic shark in an aquarium acted as sole witness to Cornelia's lamentations in "Cessa omai di sospirare."

Baroque style is alien to most Royal Opera singers, so the management imported three very different countertenors: Andreas Scholl (Caesar), Christopher Robson (Tolomeo) and James Huw Jeffries (Nireno). Scholl was phenomenal. Despite his limited stage experience, he achieved a dazzling ebb and flow in his performance, almost cinematic in its subtlety, always subservient to the drama. His Caesar was a smooth talker, not bellicose by nature, always ready to flirt with Cleopatra -- or with the brilliant Finnish violinist Sirkka-Liisa Kaakinen, who played the good-naturedly competitive obbligato in "Se in fiorito." Scholl's masterful rendition of "Aure, deh, per pietà" is unlikely ever to be bested in its musical daring and emotional depth.

Leading the Danish members of the cast, soprano Inger Dam-Jensen (Cleopatra) was glorious to behold, a delectable nymph not to be trifled with. She and Scholl made an exceedingly attractive couple, though they sang in two different idioms. Dam-Jensen is primarily a Mozartean: all warm hues, rosy timbre, delicious portamento and quicksilver vibrato. Only intermittently, as in "Piangerò," did she get the Baroque phrasing quite right.

Randi Stene's Cornelia was cast in the Romantic rather than the Baroque mold, but the Norwegian mezzo has a voice of such exquisite beauty that one was easily swayed. In Negrin's production, she was always shown in some new kind of bondage; her Cornelia was a twisted bitch who makes life miserable for her son. Sesto proved a breakthrough role for the very young soprano Tuva Semmingsen, as accomplished a Baroque singer as Scholl. Dressed as a schoolboy, she sang "Cara speme" in an almost vibrato-less sotto voce, and the pyrotechnics of "L'angue offeso" held no danger for her. The duet between Sesto and Cornelia, "Son nata a lagrimar," was naturally a highpoint.

Robson threatened to upstage everyone with his hilarious despot, petulant, narcissistic and sexually ambivalent, sung for dramatic effect rather than tonal beauty. Baritone Palle Knudsen, gifted in Mozart and Verdi, embraced Handel with resounding success; he built up his body to match his character, the brute Achilla.

The evening's music director, harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen, was a guest here, with his period-style ensemble Concerto Copenhagen. The orchestra added immense depth to the fine-grained vocal writing, balance was perfect, and Mortensen drew out dramatic accents that could provoke a cold sweat.

Alma del gran Pompeo

Alma del gran Pompeo,
Che al cener suo d'intorno invisibil t'aggiri,
fur ombra i tuoi trofei;
ombra la tua grandezza, e un'ombra sei.
Cosi termina alfine il fasto umano:
ieri chi vivo occupò un mondo in guerra,
oggi risolto in polve un'urna serra.
Tal di ciascuno, ahi lasso,
il principio è di terra e il fine è un sasso.
Misera vita, oh quanto è fral tuo stato!
Ti forma un soffio, e ti distrugge un fiato.
Spirit of great Pompey
That hovers invisible about your ashes,
Your victories were but a shadow;
A shadow was your greatness, and you are but a shadow.
To this end coms man's glory:
Yesterday he who, alive, engaged a world in war,
is today dissolved into ash and enclosed in an urn.
Such alas, is the fate of all -
The beginning life earth, the end a stone.
Wretched life!  Oh, how frail is your condition!
A sigh forms you, a breath destroys you.