Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Giulio Cesare in Egypt

Giulio Cesare, Opéra Garnier in Paris, January 17 2011

Emmanuelle Haïm    ..... Conductor
Laurent Pelly ..... Stage director and costumes

Lawrence Zazzo ..... Giulio Cesare
Varduhi Abrahamyan ..... Cornelia
Isabel Leonard ..... Sesto
Natalie Dessay ..... Cleopatra
Christophe Dumaux ..... Tolomeo
Nathan Berg ..... Achille
Dominique Visse ..... Nireno
Aimery Lefèvre ..... Curio

Orchestre du Concert d'Astrée and Paris Opera Chorus

Very busy on this end but I'll make an entry during my lunch-time, while the impressions --after a long night of baroque at Opéra Garnier-- are still fresh. Like for every premiere Palais Garnier was particularly beautiful. All the corners were opened and you could wander around during intermissions to see all that beauty under the light of all the chandeliers being turned on.

To be honest, going to Garnier, I didn't expect much. I did expect Laurent Pelly to come up with something entertaining, yes - I did expect Lawrence Zazo and Isabel Leonard to be good, but I was unsure what to think about Natalie's new adventure with Cleopatra. The publicity in Paris was dangerously focused on her, and I feared the show would be about the diva and not about Giulio Cesare.  Now, I can say I'm glad I was proved wrong: Natalie Dessay was absolutely fantastic. Her voice is still big and she demonstrates here her qualities of a great performer -- who gives her all  to make the role look and sound credible, both in moments of joy and those of despair. To me, after her riveting interpretations of Straussian and Mozartian roles, this must be the best from Dessay so far.

Detractors will be busy talking about her boobs, as in the 1st Act she is wearing a toga-like dress, with her one boob naked -- in a way you see it on an ancient statue [btw, I would like to challenge anyone among detractors to show me a better-looking boob on a woman in her 40's]

Natalie did not want  her performance to be an approximation to one of the old interpretation of this role. Her Cleopatra is different, personal, and wonderfully cheery, seductive, fragile... in a word -- womanly. In the past many people complained that Palais Garnier is far too large for a baroque opera and I can understand that point, but for Natalie that was never a problem. Her voice is bright, powerful, and easily fills up this beautiful theater.

Like I said, it is not all about Natalie. Other singers were brilliant too. Lawrence Zazzo's opening aria was plagued by bad timing [dunno if it was his or Emmanuelle Haïm's fault], which maybe boosted him even more in his ensuing arias. His "Va tacito e nascosto" was absolutely amazing.  Huge bravo to him! Isabel Leonard is my fave so I am of course biased. Her timbre resembles very much that of Joyce DiDonato, and she has that same kind of scenic & vocal engagement. Her Sesto is boyishly flamboyant, torn by his impulses, but deep down a fragile child. All her arias were great (loudly cheered by the responsive crowd) but somewhat surprisingly "Svegliatevi nel core" was not her best -- "Cara speme, questo core" was. Finally Christophe Dumaux [a man with 0% body-fat!] makes the magic of this cast to work in its fullest.
Abrahamyan, Dessay, Zazzo, Leonard, Dumaux, Visse

The show was about Giulio Cesare though. I believe this must be the best production by Laurent Pelly so far: it is witty, it is cleverly staged, and... it is different from the ways this opera is usually produced. Yes, you may complain about  Pelly's lack of depth in portraying the characters, about his desire to make the lively show too seductive even if it means not elaborating much on interaction among characters, but you cannot deny his skills as a director, his wit, an almost-perfect clarity of theatrical action, and finally the originality of this show. One big bravo to him!

He decided to place the action in the stocks of a museum somewhere in Egypt [Egyptian Museum in Cairo?!] In the opening scene the workers bring in a huge statue of Giulio Cesare, unwrap it and --as if some magic made a ghost of ancient times released-- the story begins. 
Two worlds coexist: the world of museum workers who work in that now 'haunted house', displace all the statues and museum objects to be further reminded of the story of Cesare, Cleopatra, Tolomeo, Sesto and Cornelia... and that fictitious world in which all the antique characters inhabit these statues and the museum, to recount that same story by actually living it through again. That makes every next show the recounting of that story -- the show that outgrows itself.  
 In Act-2, when Cleopatra seduces Cesare, she wears an 18th century dress and dances in front of (and inside) a huge 18-century painting depicting the seductive dance of Cleopatra -- a theme that inspired so many painters in the history, preceding this opera. At the same time that episode attaches this production to the time when Handel composed this opera, and to the place of the action too -- a museum-stock.
The show ends with the end of a working day -- the wives and girlfriends of Egyptian workers come to see their men, they turn the lights off and --inspired by the story of Giulio Cesare-- they leave the place cheerfully. Story of how art and history can put your everyday life in the right perspective, and how in fact they enrich your own life. 

Many theatrical details support the dynamics of the stage action and you definitely spend a wonderful operatic evening.

Giulio Cesare is a tricky piece of work both for the conductor and for his orchestra. Glorious performances of this opera by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants had set a bar very high and it immediately puts you in a difficult position to compare those standards. Emmanuelle Haïm and her orchestra Concert d'Astrée accepted the challenge and made us fly through the score without ever falling in intensity, keeping the sound live, monotony-free.  It was obvious that a complicity between her, her orchestra, and the singers was complete, and the result was musically fantastic.

Paris Opera is occasionally putting some tickets on sale on their website, so check it out regularly. If you can make it, this show is definitely worth a go. I don't know how it will all look on a big screen, but check out if one of the movie theaters near you will broadcast this show on February 7 at 7pm [I know for a list of cinemas in France, but I also learned that some cinemas in Spain, Switzerland, Italy, UK, Germany... will broadcast it too]  
There is a rumor saying that one show might be broadcast on Arte-TV. If I get any more info on that, I'll post it here.

In short it is the first successful new production at the Paris Opera since long time and I am glad for that. Should I add:  "Enjoy it while it last !" ? I guess I should as in 2 weeks the horror of Del Monaco's productions will be back on stage of Opéra Bastille -- Francesca da Rimini.

Unfortunately, the Paris Opera does not provide the production photos or prepares a trailer. I could only find a short video from Arte-news, which will hopefully help you get a better idea of how it all looks visually.

and my CC-pics:

First thing you see when you enter Opéra Garnier is this large statue of Handel

Always spectacular looking Palais Garnier (inside it may look like "too much decor", but your every next visit is thrilling as you discover more and more new details -- new beauty to enjoy)

Workers and their spouses

Isabel Leonard, Christophe Dumaux and Dominique Visse

Varduhi Abrahamyan, Natalie Dessay, and Lawrence Zazzo

Dessay, Zazzo, and Leonard

Nathan Berg, Laurent Pelly, avd Varduhi Abrahamyan

Zazzo and Leonard

Natalie Dessay

Emmanuelle Haïm

Adding production photos [©Agathe Poupeney] as I find them:

Captured Cornelia - Tolomeo still believes he can seduce her, while Achille is busy immobilizing Sesto

Arrival of Cleopatra

Ed: I just learned that Mezzo-TV will broadcast this production next February 12 (Saturday). Cool!


  1. I just wanted to say that I was at Garnier last night and I am sorry to disappoint you but those were not Natalie's breasts that we saw! It was silicone breast forms.But I do admit that It looked real!
    I totally rely on the critique you wrote. It was my first Haendl opera, my first baroque experience and I loved it! Dessay was just amazing and her Si pietà di me non senti was so emotionally powerful.

  2. In American slang, prominent breasts are called "headlights," so perhaps this production Dessay is "le phare-aon?"

  3. Thanks for such a detailed review, especially considering that you typed it during your lunch hour! I'm glad to hear that Dessay's voice is in great health, too. I wish I could see this production as Pelly's work sounds intriguing. Maybe it will travel out here to San Francisco. Thanks again!

  4. All I can think of (apart from the phares) is how wonderful it is to see a woman conducting in the pit of the old Garnier, especially La Haim who dances while conducting.

  5. Plus, Zazzo's Caesar sounds very femme-y in that clip. Sonia Prina needed here to butch it up a bit.

  6. Thanks Marie. I'm not disappointed. I guess Natalie's detractors will be disappointed for losing the thread of bi*ing about "how inappropriate that was"...

    La Cieca LOL! I saw that one coming :)

    CriuzSF: It will be on MezzoTV, and later on it will be released on DVD (as far as I know)

    definitely: Zazzo is a countertenor so it's normal that he sounds that way, but his stage presence is definitely very masculine. Well, so it Prina's... ;)

    Cheers all

  7. Thx for your review. After reading it, I changed my mind (Dessay in Haendel... Haïm conducting ..). So I will go to the sunday's matinée.

  8. Hey Thomas

    Give it a go and try to enjoy the moment.

    I too didn't expect Dessay to sing this good, but at the premiere she was really great.

    Haïm and her orchestra were my big big surprise. Hopefully they will sustain this quality level throughout the whole series of show. If so, you'll be fine... and more.

  9. Thomas,
    Are there tickets availble locally that don't show on the net?

  10. I got my ticket thks to l'AROP;

  11. OK I have seen the show toady with two cleopatras. Dessay cancelled after act 2 and Jane Archibald stepped in for act 3. Isabelle Leonard was also not singing. Pretty disappointed.

  12. I see. I may have to become a member.

  13. To Thomas

    Oh, no!... I have tickets for Saturday... Why did Natalie cancel?


  14. I have no idea, but I heard she had to stop at the second performance in the middle of an aria of the 3rd act.

  15. Natalie seems to be rather too keen to show off her breast augmentation. The exposed boob was not a big deal but the totally see-thru top was distracting and gimmicky and distracted from her wonderful performance.