The 2021 production, by Keith Warner, of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto at the Theater an der Wien uses Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre as a framing device. Sometimes the action is clearly the actors, producers, cigarette girls etc involved in the screening of a silent German movie version of “Caesar and Cleopatra”. Other times they are performing the action of the film/opera. Sometimes the cinema screen shows clips from the movie. Other times it shows pictures of the characters on stage. For example, at the beginning of Act 2 Tolomeo, whose other persona is some kind of sleazy mafioso movie exec, is shooting up. There’s a B&W picture of him on the screen that slowly changes to bright colours and then becomes more and more a depiction of a pretty heavy trip.
There’s lots of video (by David Haneke) in play. Sometimes it’s film of the singer that then rolls into live action. Sometimes it’s projections covering the whole stage. There are a bunch of other neat visual touches too like a weird badminton match between Caesar and Tolomeo. There’s a touch of BDSM (which seems almost obligatory in Handel these days). Cleopatra tries on a bunch of fetish outfits while she’s trying to decide how to seduce Caesar. Tolomeo has her on a collar and lead in Act 2. There’s definitely something a bit odd going on between those two. A lot gets packed into three hours which means a lot is cut too, including the role of Curio. (For comparison David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production lasts four hours).
I thought it was really effective and fun to watch. After all, characters like Caesar and Cleopatra, and the actors who played them in cinema’s golden age, were always performing a role so playing with and mixing up various kinds of performativity has a certain logic.
All four high male roles are taken here by counter-tenors. Caesar is Bejun Mehta and he’s stunning. He’s very, very playful with the role and sings brilliantly, getting quite fancy with the ornamentation and really convincing as a man who thinks he rules the world or Hollywood (whichever is bigger!). Louise Alder as Cleopatra is a very good foil. She sings and acts superbly but perhaps doesn’t quite pull off “sex kitten” as well as de Niese or, oddly perhaps, Bartoli. That said she’s plenty sexy enough and I think both of them are really into making the production concept work.
There’s also a brilliant performance by Christophe Dumaux as a super sleazy Tolomeo; greasy hair, wandering hands and all. Jake Arditti is Sesto and he’s best in the “cinema” scenes where he plays a very preppy college boy (with a bit of a mommy complex but with Patricia Bardon as Cornelia – also excellent – that works pretty well). Konstantin Derrin is a bit less campy than some other Nirenos and Simon Bailey is a solid Achilla who sings his one big aria really well. Ivor Bolton conducts from the harpsichord with the Concentus Musicus Wien in the pit so the whole thing feels appropriately period musically.
This production has just about all the elements that make a production hard to film. It’s got video, mirrors, moving scenery and low light levels. So I think Tiziano Mancini deserves credit for making a very watchable film of it (but I’ll bet it was even more fun in the theatre). He’s helped by an excellent picture on Blu-ray and very good stereo and surround sound. There aren’t any extras on the disk but there are decent notes in the booklet as well as a synopsis and full track listing. Subtitle options are (rather weird) English, Italian, German, Korean and Japanese.
There are a bunch of good video recordings of Guilio Cesare in Egitto. The Glyndebourne, Copenhagen and Salzburg recordings are all different but they are all enjoyable in their own way. This opera does seem to bring out a lot of creativity and it has some gorgeous music. So I think another fine recording is cause for celebration.
Catalogue number: Unitel Blu-ray 807804