A beauty queen, she wasn’t.
Coins portray Cleopatra VII, Egypt’s last monarch before it became a Roman province, as having a big mouth, hooked nose and prominent chin. Still, she seduced two Roman rulers, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Whatever the reason for Cleopatra’s triumphs, her love life has inspired many composers and playwrights. The most popular opera, Handel’s 1724 “Giulio Cesare,” is playing at the Palais Garnier in Paris. Although star French soprano Natalie Dessay sings her first Cleopatra, the new production fails to live up to the high expectations.
“Giulio Cesare” is the longest and most elaborate of Handel’s stage works. To bring it off, you need half a dozen world-class singers plus an imaginative director who is able to enliven the slow-moving plot. Otherwise, Handel’s endless da capo arias can be boring.
Director Laurent Pelly and set designer Chantal Thomas have reduced the opera’s 12 settings in and around Alexandria to just one -- the storeroom of a museum filled with Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiques. Whenever the scene changes, yet another marble head is rolling in or another statue comes up the elevator and gets unwrapped.
In Act II, when Cleopatra seduces Caesar by appearing on Mount Parnassus in the company of the nine Muses, various landscape paintings are brought in and taken away -- like at an auction. In the more intimate scenes, carpets, hung up on clotheslines, provide coziness.
None of that offends the eye or distorts the story. Some gags are even mildly amusing. Yet I kept longing for a less frugal imagery more in tune with Handel’s grandiose spectacle.
Dessay is a consummate stage animal and a joy to watch as the flirtatious girl who slowly matures into a loving woman. I’ve heard her in fresher voice, yet her coloratura is as dazzling as ever.
During the first intermission on opening night, the main topic of conversation was her impressive left breast, in true Egyptian style not covered by her white dress: Was it her own or part of her costume?
Handel wrote the role of Caesar for one of the 18th century’s superstars, the castrato Senesino. This type of voice is extinct, and the best among recent recordings use mezzo sopranos.
Paris has opted for a countertenor -- a big mistake. Lawrence Zazzo’s whiny voice couldn’t be more inappropriate for the ruler of a mighty empire. With his fluttery gestures and full hair, he looks more like an excited schoolboy than Rome’s most illustrious bald autocrat.
Zazzo isn’t the only countertenor on stage. There are two more, mercifully both with steadier voices: Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s scheming brother, and Dominique Visse as Nireno, her confidant.
Varduhi Abrahamyan delivers the mournful airs of Cornelia, Pompey’s widow, with appealing warmth. Isabel Leonard is an appropriately boyish-sounding Sesto, her son.
This is Emmanuelle Haim’s debut at the Paris Opera. A year ago, she was to conduct Mozart’s “Idomeneo” but couldn’t get along with the orchestra. Watching her unorthodox technique -- instead of using a baton, she shakes her fists -- you understand why.
Now she’s back with the Orchestre du Concert d’Astree, her own period-instrument band. Leaving aside the usual mishaps of the horns, the playing is stylish and smooth if a bit anemic.
“Giulio Cesare” is in repertory at the Palais Garnier through Feb. 17. The production is supported by Siemens AG. Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr or +33-1-7125-2423.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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