Giulio Cesare in Egitto (DVD)
~ HWV 17 ~
Kultur Video D2911
(2 Region 1 DVDs)
Released in 2004.
(2 PAL DVDs)
Released in 2005.
Giulio Cesare: Graham Pushee, countertenor
Cleopatra: Yvonne Kenny, soprano
Achilla: Stephen Bennett, tenor
Sesto: Elizabeth Campbell, mezzo-soprano
Tolomeo: Andrew Dalton, countertenor
Cornelia: Rosemary Gunn, mezzo-soprano
Nireno: Rodney Gilchrist, countertenor
Curio: Richard Alexander, bass
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Richard Hickox, conductor
(Recorded live at the Sydney Opera House, June 1994.)
This is about as basic as a DVD can get: no extras at all, subtitles only in English (options: on or off), associated documentation consisting of a single sheet of Italian chapter headings - some are aria first lines, some recitative, no indication of which for those unfamiliar with the opera (and in fact some are incorrect, see below), and a list of credits on the back of the box. So what you get is an unadorned re-issue of the video put out in 1994 to preserve that year’s Australian Opera [now Opera Australia] production of Handel’s best known opera.
The production served AO/OA well in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane up until 2000, and also appeared in San Francisco in 2001 (with David Daniels and Elizabeth Futral). What looked like the last word in stylish chic ten years ago is a little dated now, but it is a generally respectful approach to the work, with nothing more outrageous than a tasteful dip in the bath for the unclothed Cleopatra during 'Venere bella'. There are visual allusions to Ancient Egypt throughout, with some nice late 18th century prints for the overture, but no overly detailed attention to period as such. Tolomeo is depicted as akin to a twentieth century totalitarian dictator, surrounded at one point by portraits of himself. There is a ballet troupe, with males and females all with bald heads and dead white make up (which does rather put one in mind of that Joan Collins classic Land of the Pharaohs) and sometimes one could wish for less of them, particularly during 'Va tacito'.
Graham Pushee is a charismatic performer on stage, and to a large extent his wily and debonair Caesar is well captured here. His countertenor voice can strike a little harshly, but his approach is unfailingly musical, his voice firm and forward, and he can produce some lovely sounds in the top register. A highlight of this production is 'Se in fiorito', sung in musical competition with violinist Tony Gault. Yvonne Kenny’s Cleopatra is a rather more knowing princess than is often depicted, certainly in her early scenes, but she is in excellent voice here and her 'Se pieta' is very moving, also 'Piangerò', both contrasting with her joyful attack on 'Da tempesta'. Rosemary Gunn is an affecting Cornelia, desperately maintaining her Roman dignity while clad in a lurid red harem outfit. Sesto is represented by stalwart mezzo Elizabeth Campbell, making a reasonable fist of him as a young naval ensign. Tolomeo is suitably horrible, but Andrew Dalton’s rather wavery voice does not really capture his vocal venom.
The score is presented not quite complete, with only Cleopatra’s 'Tutto può' being jettisoned altogether, as it often is, despite the fact that one of the chapter titles on the included sheet refers to it. This is a puzzle, as it was not in the original video release, nor (insofar as I recall) in any of the stage perfomances. A couple of arias ('Cara speme', 'Si spietata') are only represented by their A section with no da capo. The orchestra is the regular AO [OA] one with modern instruments, but Richard Hickox maintains a baroque approach; some of the tempi might seem a little stately these days.
This is a worthy record of what was an excellent production in its day, and it’s a pity no effort has been made to add some operatic Easter eggs. The only other Giulio Cesare currently available as a commercial DVD is the English National Opera one which is another decade older again, and sung in English.
© Sandra Bowdler - March 2005
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