Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Coming, Seeing, and Nearly Conquering

April 06, 2007

Keep smiling! Daniels and Swenson.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2007

It’s Easter weekend in NY and there’s Handel everywhere you look. Tonight was the opening performance of the Met’s revival of Giulio Cesare which featured a typically all-star cast including David Daniels as Cesare, Ruth Ann Swenson as Cleopatra, Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Alice Coote as Sesto, and Lawrence Zazzo as Tolomeo . Also as usual, the Met has revived a completely hopeless and ridiculous production from John Copley, which ultimately undercuts the vocal and musical performance. Now, I love Baroque operas. Honestly, if I don’t break the third hour in an opera I feel cheated and Baroque pieces appeal to my love of formality and structure. So in the end I really enjoyed this evening because this is a great opera that is well sung with the current cast and a conductor, Harry Bicket, who knows what he’s doing.

That being said, there is a lot that could be improved here. This is the third outing of this production from 1988 and it suffers from a tepid kitchiness that is hard to tolerate. I recognize the idea is to make the opera look like a Baroque version of ancient Roman and Egyptian history, but this seems like a rather cynical approach. I think it is possible to stage Baroque operas without having to always be tongue-in-cheek and still have modern audiences relate to them. Here we don’t get the chance to do that as the women flounce around in ridiculous hoop skirts and the men must all deal with capes so lengthy that any movement is preceded with a dramatic wave to clear their path of fabric. I think if you’re going for a camp effect you can’t do it half-way – think Laurent Pelly. For some other great ideas for staging this opera, check out this photo from Christof Loy's recent Theater an der Wien staging.

Kristina Hammarström (Cornelia), Malena Ernman (Sesto), Nicolas Rivenq (Achilla), Klemens Sander (Curio), Marijana Mijanovic (Giulio Cesare)
Photo: Wilfried Hösl 2007

All this campiness also proved to be too much for some of the cast most notably Ruth Ann Swenson. Swenson, of course, decided to make some rather unfortunate accusations in the NY Times about Peter Gelb and the Met management pushing her aside in the future because of her weight. I somehow doubt that. It is certainly true that she can sing well, but I suspect a bigger issue may be that her one-note acting approach is getting old. There is a difference between playing Adina and Cleopatra but you’d hardly know it from the smirk on her face throughout most of the performance. Many in the crowd, though, took the bait she put in the paper, and she was greeted at the final curtain with a big ovation accompanied by shredded program confetti strewn from the upper balconies.

Of course, Swenson being around at the Met less may make room for new singers who deserve to be heard here but haven’t had the chance like, say, Danielle de Niese who will take over later in the role. Tonight featured excellent performances from Alice Coote and a Met debut for the fabulous Patricia Bardon. I was excited to see her again after her amazing creation of the role of Adriana Mater last year in Paris and here she rose above the onstage silliness to generate some real emotion. Musically, things were pretty good but the Met Opera Orchestra is clearly not used to playing many of these Baroque scores and, despite some ringers on the lute, Baroque guitar, and Bicket playing the harpsichord himself, the group often overplayed, sacrificing much of the fragile and whistful nature of the score. This is Handel, not Verdi and quick does not always need to be charging.

In other news, it was nice to see some familiar LA faces in the crowd including Mark Swed from the LA Times. Well it's off to today's double header at the Met, with report to follow.

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