Priscilla, Queen of Da Nile: Giulio Cesare at Lyric Opera
I would like to begin by saying that the following—despite being, so far as I can tell, the only review containing even a hint of negativity—has anything at all to do with the fact that Lyric Opera's production of Handel's Giulio Cesare seems to have been some sinister plot hatched in collaboration with AT&T to kill my cell phone and to suck away many hours of my life trying to get it (the cell phone, not my life) replaced. I merely mention that the last living act of said cell phone was to text former opera-going-companion, L, in solicitation of his mental support to get yours truly through 4 hours of Baroqueapalooza—an event that involves an early curtain, no fewer than 3 countertenors, a trouser role, and the design team that brought you Giant Omnipresent Jesus and His Funkadelic Back-Up Thieves. I make no accusations, I point no fingers, but as of the first intermission, that phone had ceased to be. No doubt it was shuffling its mortal coil off to Buffalo.
Even before the Baroque-on-Silicon violence, the evening was vexing. The fury hair had failed to cooperate, leading to a late departure from the old homestead. Traffic around the Civic Opera House further conspired to delay me. (And although I found non-usurious street parking, even that wee boon resulted in poor little Kaga being shat upon quite extensively.) I was about 90 seconds late for the Pompous Lecture, and they had already cruelly barred the doors. The outside doors, in fact, meaning that hundreds of us were stranded outside for about 3 more minutes before they opened the building to those who had signed on for the Pomposity Lite version of the evening. Which is . . . well . . . extremely stoopit, especially given that the doors on the balcony level were open, so I was able to scoot up into my seat and catch at least some of the lecture.
I might as well get out my complaints vis-à-vis pomposity out of my system directly. As anyone who bothers to read knows, I am much more likely to complain about pomposity that tends to the Baby Bear end of the spectrum than I am to whinge when the pomposity reaches Papa Bear levels. But in this case, whinge I shall, not about the quantity of pomposity or even its quality (which got a much deserved whinge in my entry on Il Trovatore), necessarily, but about its . . . monolithic nature and the negative effects of same on the Pompous Program.
For example, the synopsis is the recycled work of stage director David McVicar. The Pompous Essay by Ellen T. Harris is much less an exploration of the opera itself than it is a plug for McVicar's vision of it. There are, at least, some thoughts from the performers and crew on their roles and on the opera (as opposed to straightforward, decontextualized resumés), but as often as not these are, again, commentaries on this particular production.
David Daniels, for example, is asked what he most enjoys in David McVicar's production (a rather noncommittal "my interaction with Cleopatra. And I love the violin aria, 'Se in fiorito,' where Lydia's servants are filing my nails and serving me tea!," so perhaps the production agenda was derailed there by the narcissisim of the countertenor). Patricia Bardon reveals that she's been nipping at the McVicar kool-aid as she lauds his desire "really to tell the Sextus-Cornelia story," going on to say that McVicar's treatment gives her an opportunity to "enjoy playing Cornelia as an altogether more multifaceted figure, not just the grande dame."
Most of the other cast and crew blurbs and bios throw around terms like "colonialism" and "Bollywood" with casual disregard for how the rest of the thinking, English-speaking world uses them. It's rather irksomely like watching a Daily Show condensation of the day's political buzzwords without the benefit of humor, a point, or a TV boyfriend of Jon Stewart quality. The David McVicar Award for Unclearness on the Concept (oh, come now, you must have known that, whatever I said three sentences ago, I was bound to bitch about the quality of pomposity) goes, this time, to Brigitte Reiffenstuel (who would like to remind you: It's pronounced RYE-fen-schtool):
"The atmosphere is Orientalism, very 'Death on the Nile.' [Seriously, I haven't heard anyone use the term "Oriental" in any serious way outside my cracker relatives or sandwiched in between "the" and "Institute," for the last 2 decades – Ed.] We used 1870s British uniforms because we wanted an army that would connect to the idea of intrusion into a foreign land [not exactly a limited pool to choose from, then. – Ed.] – the disturbance of a natural order."
No matter how hell bent on manifestation one's destiny might seem, Ms. Reiffenstuel, invasion, whether by Romans, Hyksos, or British is a bog standard disturbance of the human-imposed, unnatural-almost-by-definition, political order. But we do value your feedback.
Danielle de Niese actually blurbs outside the box, but sadly she seems doomed to disappointment for her troubles. I quote from her rather thoughtful commentary on Cleopatra qua Cleopatra (as opposed to David McVicar's George Frideric Handel's Cleopatra):
"There's such an arc to Cleopatra's development. Her aria 'Se pietà' encapsulates the moment when this young girl starts to experience deeper emotions than she was prepared to handle. She realizes she has an emotional attachment not only to the great alliance she's formed with Caesar, but to the man himself. In losing him, she'll lose more than just a political ally. We know from history that Cleopatra was intelligent and bold – she knew when to user her charms and when to be a politician – but it's clear in the music and the libretto that there's incredibly vulnerability in her."
Interesting points, all. A pity that the production seems interested in about every tenth word in that quotation. But I'll get there eventually.
In the interests of balance, I'll move on to the set, which really is not so bad. In fact, it is 100% Jesus free, and for small favors we are eternally grateful. (Of course, there is a mouldering head [stone head, although his fleshly head is also, rather importantly, mouldering, too] of, I think, Pompey, and it's silly, but it's intermittent and this is Alexandria, 48 BC. Not exactly the time to hide your monument under a bushel.)
The main set is simply nested proscenium arches that get narrower upstage. These are backed by sliding scenery so wee, bright, sparkly, childlike, and downright old fashioned that it tempts one to use the word "quaint." Throughout the show it serves to evoke waves just barely tipped in gold by the eternal sun of the British empire, as the theatre for a bathtub naval battle, as the sun-seared air settling over the Mediterranean outside Cleopatra's balcony. It's as marvelously versatile as a revolve, but it's also constant in a crucial way.
Set designer Robert Jones cites this as "the initial reference point . . . the opera house in Drottingholm in Sweden, where they have the old wave machine and sliding scenery." It's an homage to opera's past when the best that money and technology could buy resulted in a grand, albeit 2-dimensional, version of realism. Jones's respectful nod to tradition, though, has a playful bite to it (and that playfulness is surely due to McVicar, to give him his due in the things about this production that work most of the time).
There is never a time when this "reference point" is completely masked: In Caesar's war room, we glimpse it through the rigid frame of a doorway; in the palace, it is framed softly in swags of garish fabric; on the fields of battle, the entire back wall is opened up, but still the stridently linear boundary of the proscenium arch describes the limits of this on-stage "reality." At all times, it's appropriately evocative of a child's puppet theater. Jones's commentary on his design is enlightening (and cogent, which is a nice improvement over Charles "Seeping Ore" Edwards' efforts):
"The set is a modern take on Handel's Baroque theater world. . . . When we add the drapes it's ' Bollywood' [Not so much, but I'm so very fond of the deliberate duality of his set that I'll allow it – Ed.] but it still looks like a Baroque theater - two worlds in one. Our set is Handel's playing space as it would have been, but it's also a palace, a garden, the dock with boats arriving - wherever we want it to be without it being literal."
It's not as big a success along these lines as the set for Pirates of Penzance a few years back, but it's got a lot more going for it than simple absence of Jesus.
Jones and lighting designer Paule Constable seem to be on the same page about duality and artifice. Constable's lighting design is not only elegant and unobtrusive, it very nearly sells some of McVicar's stranger stage-directing choices. For example, the opera opens with slow motion on stage. I refer you to my regarding my policy on slow motion on stage. I will grant you that this is nonessential slow motion (befezzed Egyptians are backing their way across the stage, whisking the floors as they go), but it is slow motion in juxtaposition to JC himself, the original focus of my slow-motion-on-stage trauma. The fact that I was not crawling out of my seat and into a therapist's office is largely thanks to that languorous, dusty lighting. I would have licked that lighting if the lighting itself hadn't utterly compelled me to seek out a cool drink, a rattan chair, and the nearest fan on Casablanca speed.
So there I was, purring with contentment under some unlikely circumstances, when Caesar had to show up, apparently having taken some bad advice and traded his testicles for tragically p@5t3d 0n Gerard Butler abs. Thus began my hate on for Madame RYE-fen-schtool's costuming, primarily in concept, but occasionally (and certainly in the case of the most punk-ass armor possible for a countertenor) in execution as well.
I was eventually resigned, more or less, to the most obvious and least interesting representation of colonial power possible in for the Romans' costumes (although looking at the close up of Caesar's coat, I'm calling shenanigans on his shopping the Wotan line), and I disliked Reiffenstuel's vision of "Bollywood" enough that I ought to have been glad of it when the costume concept devolves entirely into every single character dressing as though they might be called up on to ride to hounds at a moment's notice. Certainly it did give me a break from Reiffenstuel's, dusty, puffy, swaggy, tackily tied back and betassled, appallingly Victorian rendition of "orientalism" (we just happen to be watching Chandu the Magician right now, and its lifelike realism is breathtaking in comparison), but it also embodies my major beef with the production's concept.
As much lip service as both cast and crew pay to the importance of colonialialism, invasion, duality, and the lure of the exotic, McVicar and Reiffenstuel, at least, seem to lose interest in these concepts almost before the end of Act I. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the duration of Cleopatra/Lydia's Mata Hari number (although again I'm calling shenanigans on her for mailing away for Wotan's 6-DVD course on how not to be seen), as I was still holding out hope for the production doing something interesting on the topics of syncretism, acculturation, and so forth.
Cleopatra/Lydia does make one final appearance in her Vegas-by-Victoria (Queen, not Secret) wear for her seduction of Caesar (which begins with her being toted on stage wrapped in a carpet, leading me, at least, to wonder how even the teen-aged Cleopatra's notions of sexuality could be fucked up enough that doubling as a corpse in a particularly low-rent noir film = teh sex). From there it's straight into Opheliaware for consummation interruptus, thence into her disguise as a junior squire.
The appearance of Cleopatra's breeches coincides with the evaporation of any duality at all. Not only does all UR power aRe BelOng to the British, but in a story that features one of the most powerful and politically relevant women in myth and history, McVicar takes this legendary seductress, disguises her as a little boy, and gives her cheerleading moves and back-up dancers. I. Was. Pissed. In fact, I didn't think I could possibly be any more pissed, but then Cleopatra went to an even whiter place in the coronation scene. The cropping of that photo is not optional, incidentally. The dress was—and I am not exaggerating here—at least 1.5 times as wide as Danielle DeNiese is tall. For the curtain calls, she had to do this kind of skipping sidle on to the stage because she did not fit between the proscenium arches. Mr. McVicar, I hope that your orgasm over that bit of cuteness was truly phenomenal, because I don't think your contempt for your Cleopatra could have been any clearer than if you had urinated on her and used her ass as a footstool.
But I need to circle back for a moment to address yet another offensively shallow, unthinking directorial choice for Cleopatra. Before the atrociously choreographed Bring it On aria, I was vaguely annoyed by some of the invasive, aggressively kittenish aspects of Cleopatra's choreography. I'd been willing to let choreographer Andrew George off the hook because of my readiness to find McVicar's direction, particularly of women, to be an afterthought. Certainly I thought the choreography might have given the audience a little credit for being able to keep up with events without underscoring the relentless repetition of the da capo arias (collect all 742 in this opera) with equally repetitive choreography and all its jabby little hand motions, but I wrote this off to McVicar's being unable to resist any opportunity to be cute.
However, in retrospect, George goes up against the wall with McVicar and Rieffenstuel:
"Handel's music is so modern [Um . . . no. – Ed.], and there are so many levels in it. . . . In choreographing it, you can pick moments that are a real gift for rhythm and accent. For Giulio Cesare I was thinking of 'Bollywood' films, although Cleopatra's last aria was inspired by musical theater. I tend to bastardize different techniques – whatever best suits the piece – and the end of what we call the 'brolly number' is pure Ginger Rogers."
Mr. George, I am an aficionado of Ms. Rogers, and I can assure you that the stilted loping going on out on the apron with that damnable umbrella did not come with in a country mile of the gliding, graceful, sparkling phenomenon that is Ms. Rogers. I really do understand that the temptation to choreograph the role within an inch of its life must be absolutely overwhelming when you are working within the operatic confines and yet you have scored Her Majesty, Queen Hotness as your Cleopatra. But, seriously, with that much woman to work with, all you can come up with is underaged, empty-headed, completely Europeanized Gavroche impersonator? Shame. SHAME.
Cleopatra isn't the only victim of homogenization, of course. One of the things I find curious about the text of the opera is that every man in it, with the glaring exception of Caesar, is creaming himself over the conveniently recently widowed Cornelia. Bardon's comments on how McVicar makes more of Cornelia than usual certainly had me questioning how a production could make less of her. Although it's mostly our Egyptians, Ptolemy and his general (Achillas) who are auditioning for Cornelia-based pr0n, even Caesar's general (Curius) can't resist a comment on her hotness.
The tension between Ptolemy and Achillas over who will get the toy surprise widow is central to the plot, of course, but why Curius? In the context of this production, Curius is played by Darren Stokes, who happens to be African American. Reiffenstuel has him in the full regalia of a Scottish regiment in the Victorian British army. (Incidentally, he does fully as much justice to his kilt as he did to his Neptune costume.) "Interesting!" thought I, "They are explicitly making him 'other' to both Cornelia and Caesar. It's an invitation not just to ask 'why Curius?' but also 'whynot Caesar?' I wonder where they'll take that. Perhaps it's a commentary on how the exotic represents a lure with both sexual and political undertones." Unfortunately, where they were going with it was exactly nowhere.
That takes me back to the fork in the homogenous road so that we can explore the second dimension of failure. Along with taking woman's power entirely out of the equation, McVicar's production relieves the audience's mind of any worries that those dark, exotic types might be able to keep on keepin' on and still gain the upper hand. Starting with Ptolemy's second appearance, he's out of his puffy teal pants and into khaki knee breeches forever more, and his walking stick is always close at hand. His War Room seems cobbled together largely from the ruins of General Melchett's with Richard IV's "FRESH HORSES" table thrown in for historical color.
Thus all color, contrast, and alternative ways of wielding power are drained from Ptolemy. His pursuit of Cornelia ceases to be passion, politics, or even personal bad judgement. His youth, his Egyptian identity, his contrasting model of manhood are pureed until he's nothing but a pathetic wannabe. Again, this is a conceptual failure, and so I suppose you could argue that it's my reading of the production that's faulty.
Fair enough, let's talk execution: Achillas is dressed in a a version of the British uniforms cut from the cloth of a white flag of surrender (there is only one way to be military, after all, and that is the male, British way). When he turns on Ptolemy (whose finishing move in the quest for Whiteness is to do Cornelia) and, with is dying breath, gives Caesar the seal that will enable him to command Ptolemy's army, the soldiers that appear and give their lives to ensure Caesar's victory are clad in British/Roman red. Given that there are identifiably Egyptian/Ptolomaeic soldiers earlier on, I could not figure out for the life of me why Achillas's troops (and the army that boy!Cleo musters, for that matter) are dressed like Romans—a total mess and a blight on the face of thoughtful postmodern, neocolonial pastiche.
Why, 2 months down the line, does this still get me so worked up? Because this is all such a waste of potential. The set and lighting are wasted on a muddled concept and spotty execution. (Although, in fairness to Reinfenstuel, I suppose Robert Jones gets some of the blame for the heinous color choice on the hideous, frumpy, ostensibly Bollywood curtains.) Worse still, much of McVicar's direction can be every bit as brilliant as those he keeps on retainer would like us to believe it is. Although its seems Ellen Harris is among those retainers, she captures nicely a vital element of McVicar's success:
"As Ptolemy and his general Achillas exchange asides, Caesar recognizes that, under the mask of cordiality, they are plotting against him. He reflects upon this in an aria that compares Ptolemy to a cunning hunter who moves silently, not wanting his deceitful actions to be detected. Handel places Caesar's voice against a solo French horn, perfectly conveying the hunting image, while the primary theme inches forward on short, repeated notes suggesting stealthy movement through the forest. The effect is a musical tour de force, catching both the mood and the physical gestures of the text. But what happens on stage?
Here is the conundrum of Baroque opera. The drama has risen to the boiling point, and now the lead character apparently moves to the lip of the stage and delivers a virtuosic, solo aria as an aside lasting some seven minutes while the other characters wait – apparently without hearing anything or even noticing Caesar's withdrawal from the action.
David McVicar's staging rises brilliantly to this challenge, creating a tense pas de deux between the two rulers that fully embraces the physicality of Handel's music."
And she's right. The blocking, the composition of the scene, the balance of advance, retreat, and holding of ground are brilliant.And I could point to half a dozen individual moments that stun and disorient in their perfection. I can imagine other directors failing utterly to ground the music in the moment. Unfortunately, those half a dozen moments that brilliantly blend McVicar's contemporary sensibility with Handel's baroque music don't even cover all 9 of Caesar's arias.
Ultimately these string lights in the darkness primarily serve to highlight McVicar's dismal lack of attention to many important points. The combination of Handel's music, DeNiese's voice and presence, and the director that McVicar obviously can be should have resulted in an electrifying Cleopatra. Instead, she was merely a shocking, campy afterthought, stereotypically oversexed and sexless by turns.
I do not at all wish to cast aspersions on the performers, who were superb almost without fail over 4 hours of difficult music. Likewise, I have nothing at all negative to say about Emmanuelle Haïm whose Lyric debut marks the first appearance not only of a female conductor, but my first experience of an instrumentalist/conductor at Lyric. The blending of a handful of period instruments (theorbo, harpsichord, and I'm sure a few others I've forgotten in the time elapsed) gave a depth to the pit that is most welcome when 4 score and 7 de capo arias are on the program.
For individual performances, I place Maite Beaumont's Sextus at the top of the heap. I always have to factor in my pro-mezzo bias, and in this case I think men's roles, even when sung by women, are just more likely to flourish under McVicar's direction. Even figuring in these points her favor, though, she wins out for me thanks to the color and flexibility of her voice. Beaumont herself seems to be but a wee tot, so she comes by the youth and clarity of tone, so needed for and yet so often lacking in trouser roles, naturally. But it's appropriate for Sextus to be aging before our eyes, and so we were treated to some beautiful glimpses of how her voice is likely to mature.
DeNiese is quite deservedly opera's soprano darling. I feel petty calling her out for some isolated instances of suspect pitch and shoddy breath support given how bloody much singing she has to do, especially when McVicar and George to have been just barely able to suppress their urge to have her doing the robot as part of her jerky, jabby, hyperathletic-but-presumably-still-sexy-in-their-broken-demented-minds choreography. She is a stunningly gorgeous woman with a voice to match and she gamely attempts not just to inhabit, but to breathe life into every disjointed, pale, flaccid Cleopatra that occurs to McVicar as an afterthought. I would love to see her under direction that is more consistent and more interested in exploring the women in the text.
Like DeNiese, Patricia Bardon exceeds the director's vision of her character. Her Cornelia is necessarily pale, literally and metaphorically, in this production, but Bardon finds subtle shades, vocally and dramatically: She brings white hot fury to the widow's grief; she runs when she needs to, but ultimately stands and fights for her son and for dominion over her own body, sexuality, and fate.
Christophe Dumaux was a marvelous Ptolemy trapped in a decidedly vanilla directorial vision of Ptolemy. I also feel like I should give special credit to his Prince hair, which is the best hair since Dandini's. If I were feeling like kissing and making up with McVicar and Reiffensteul, I might allow that the Prince hair, in some small way, keeps him Egyptian, despite the tweeds. For reasons I can't quite put my finger on, Dumaux's voice and physical presence (helped along, no doubt, by the superfly Prince hair) seem to do especially well at resolving the visual/vocal paradox of the countertenor.
Of course, David Daniels is not helped along the paradoxical yellow brick road to Julius freakin' Caesar, Castrato, by his golden ab armor. However, even giving him a generous handicap for tragic costuming, he came in second (arguably a tie for second with Gerald Thompson's Nirenus) among countertenors as far as I'm concerned. That's not really fair to him, given that my discontent with McVicar's direction makes me more likely to ding Caesar for points. I also really do feel the loss of Roger Pines' lecture on the opera when considering Daniels as Caesar. I slipped into my seat just as he was closing his remarks on why Handel might have chosen to write the character in this range, so I've got little grist for my mental mill. I'm left with not a lot to say beyond noting that Daniels' Orfeo moved me much more both dramatically and aesthetically. Oh, and a quick trip to the Glyndebourne site reveals that the original production, the one captured on DVD, features a mezzo as Caesar. I don't think I'm quite intrigued enough to either shell out for or even sit through a rental of said DVD, but I do wonder . . .
The supporting players are all of the quality I expect from Lyric. Wayne Tigges is impressive and impassive as Ptolomey's heavy, but also downright beautifully lyrical as Cornelia's would-be lover. Tigges put me favorably in mind of Joseph Kaiser's Narraboth from last year. Darren Stokes is vocally an ideal foil for Tigges, but the dramatic cul de sac that he ends up in thanks to his costuming is unfortunate (again, no disrespect of Stokes intended at all). I did also like Gerald Thompson's Nirenus. In fact, I feel like I should have spent more time liking this performance than I did. Unfortunately, I was thrown for a loop (a) because I had for some reason gotten it in my head that Nirenus was a woman, so I was confused about what appeared to me to be drag, and (b) although Reiffenstuel fails to acknowledge this, in a move stunning in its politically incorrect camp (even in the context of this production's dedication to taking a giant colonialist dump on all traces of ethnicity and difference), his costume was patterned after that of Morocco Mole.
So there you have it, my long delayed, much-discontented, lone voice in the wilderness, lukewarm review of David McVicar's Giulio Caesar. Shutting up now, sir.