Giulio Cesare; Così fan tutte; Siegfried/Götterdämmerung – review

It can happen that an opera production leaves such a deep impression on a work that it becomes the audience’s touchstone for a generation. The Mafioso from 1982 by Jonathan Miller Rigoletto – New York gangsters and a jukebox-playing duke – wins for ingenuity and box-office success. (With or without the dog-ear, it will return to English National Opera in the autumn.) Glyndebourne’s production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare (1724), directed by David McVicar, is another hit once seen and never forgotten. Last revived in 2018, Giulio Cesare is back and flying – revived by McVicar himself – with a first-rate cast, Handelian Laurence Cummings conducting a work he knows inside and out, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment excelling in the pit. Handel’s score, one of his best-loved, is brimming with star arias in every humour from jubilant to mournful.

At the outset, model clippers bobbing on glittering mechanical waves conjure up complex impressions: toy theatre, island nation, seafaring power; imperial ambition, violence, war. The trading setting is the Roman-Egyptian War of 48-47 BC. The victorious Caesar sails into Alexandria, only to encounter the fractious duo of Ptomely and Cleopatra, co-regent siblings and rivals. McVicar, with his design team led by Robert Jones, has cleverly and eclectically updated the action to the British invasion of Egypt in 1882: soldiers in red coats, pith helmets and a prevailing Victorian attitude to the declining Ottoman Empire as a site of female “oriental” fantasy. Cleopatra and her entourage are dressed in sumptuous colours and jewelled costumes (designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel). Well-drilled physical detail and dance, with a nod to Bollywood, are key to the action (choreography by Andrew George). This is a long evening, but one that is sure to please, especially when violinist Kati Debretzeni takes to the stage in a virtuoso confrontation with Caesar, outshining his vocal fireworks with dazzling trills and a big, fat pizzicato.

In 2005, Sarah Connolly sang Caesar in the trouser role, opposite Danielle de Niese as the sexy, flapper-dress-wearing, umbrella-twirling Cleopatra (the performance is available on a Glyndebourne video. Now countertenors come to the fore: American Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is Caesar, noble, sensitive, golden, with Persian-Canadian Cameron Shahbazi, in a remarkable Glyndebourne debut, while his wily enemy Tolomeo adds a welcome low voice, that of Italian bass-baritone Luca Tittoto, as the ferocious henchman Achilla.

The finale of Giulio Cesare is joyful and short. Those long outpourings of emotion are what remain

British soprano Louise Alder nearly steals the show as Cleopatra, her vocals impeccable, every ornament or coloratura beautifully placed. Two excellent mezzo-sopranos, Scotland’s Beth Taylor (the grieving Cornelia) and Bulgarian Svetlina Stoyanova (her son Sesto) shine, alone or together, in their heartfelt arias: grief expressed in music without equal. The finale of Giulio Cesarethanks to a tactical juggle of historical facts, is cheerful and short. Those long outpourings of emotion are what remain.

Who can say where reality begins and ends in Cosi fan tutte (1790), the last of three collaborations between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. It’s no surprise that the work, a sublime operatic riddle, is always referred to by its Italian title, which loosely translates as “all women are like that.” Not that anyone should take offense at the implied insult. This partner-swapping opera unabashedly shows that all men are like that, too. Love knows no guarantees. Jan Philipp Gloger’s 2016 production, revived at the Royal Opera House by Oliver Platt, drives the point home. It also awkwardly explores uncomfortable questions about human intention and frailty, as expressed in Mozart’s soul-cleansing music. Gloger and his designer, Ben Baur, take metatheater to the point of exasperation: the action takes place onstage, backstage, under, out, under. Dorabella (Samantha Hankey) and Fiordiligi (Golda Schultz) drape their dead lovers’ clothes over mannequins. As the two couples brave the temptation, they stand ‘on stage’, beneath a tree of knowledge, while a monstrous serpent coils around the trunk and birds of prey hover above.

The staging is dark and claustrophobic, but Mozart’s score breathes free and airy, as if presenting life’s darkest problems with a cheerful smile. Alexander Soddy, conductor, kept the tempo fast at first, but then settled into a smooth flow, eliciting exuberant orchestral solos from horns and woodwinds. Schultz and Hankey, with Daniel Behle returning as Ferrando and Andrè Schuen as Guglielmo, Gerald Finley as Don Alfonso and Jennifer France as Despina, worked as magnificent equals in this ensemble cast.

Wagner’s Ring marathon, four operas performed in seven days, ended last weekend in Longborough with Siegfried And Götterdämmerung, led by Anthony Negus and directed by Amy Lane. The gods met their doom; Brünnhilde (Lee Bisset) galloped into the flames to be reunited with the dead hero Siegfried (Bradley Daley); the gold, a metaphor of worldly power and evil, was returned to the Rhine. The complex symbolism of the work emerged without fuss through music and character. The entire cast, the choir of vassals (along with the Longborough Community Chorus) and the sixty-piece orchestra all contributed to the enterprise. In these last two operas the supporting characters have their moment: Adrian Dwyer’s meandering Mime; Julian Close’s gruesome, roaring Hagen, Benedict Nelson’s nuanced and cleverly clumsy Gunther, Laure Meloy’s gullible Gutrune) and Claire Barnett-Jones’ steadfast Waltraute.

The point of this Cotswolds Ring cycle is not whether it meets the standards, budgets or the stagecraft of the world’s great opera houses. Sometimes it does (surprisingly often), sometimes it doesn’t. The scale of the undertaking, the dedication, the hard work – against all odds – the high musical standards and, above all, the response of the audiences, many of whom will never hear a Ring cycle elsewhere: these are the things that matter.

Star ratings (out of five)
Giulio Cesare ★★★★
Just like everyone else ★★★
Siegfried/Götterdämmerung ★★★★

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