Dutch National Opera 2022-23 Review: Giulio Cesare

Bieito’s Direction Shines A Light On Our Present Day Global Elites

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Elites within society are nothing new. However, over the latter part of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st century, we have witnessed the emergence of an increasingly powerful elite who possess significant global interests yet apparently display little attachment to any specific country.

It is an elite that is accumulating wealth and income on a hitherto unknown scale, leading to rising inequalities, especially within the top one percent. They are also becoming increasingly assertive, actively involving themselves in formulating and promoting policies that affect many aspects of people’s lives. One need only think of Davos and the World Economic Forum: each year, the unelected elites from big tech, the media, banking, and big pharma, among others, fly into the small Swiss mountain resort in their private jets–the place cordoned off especially for their protection—to meet with lesser mortals like academics and politicians. Here they discuss their plans for the future of the world. Some of their ideas are benign, some are certainly not, but all are aimed at securing their own positions of power.

As these people move further beyond the reach of the law, nation-states are finding it increasingly difficult to contain their activities. One need only think of Geoffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell and the fact that court orders have kept the names of their clients secret or of the intricate tax loopholes that allow the super-rich to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. The desire by elites to accumulate wealth and power unrestrained by law is, of course, a common thread running through history. One need only cast the mind back to Ancient Rome and Egypt, to Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Pompey, and Ptolemy.

This is exactly what Händel, along with his librettist Nicola Haym, did for his 1724 opera “Giulio Cesare,” albeit with a liberal dose of fictional material thrown in for dramatic purposes. Together, they created an opera centering on the elites’ unconstrained lust for power, sex, and wealth, in which a small group of individuals spend their lives battling each other, oblivious to the suffering they impose on the rest of the population, whom they view as mere resources to be used in their games.

Bieito Updates The Ancient World To The Present Day  

For the Dutch National Opera’s production of “Giulio Cesare,” the director Calixto Bieito has reimagined it as set in the present day. The elites have gathered at an unnamed desert location to engage in their power games, in which the weaker are pushed aside, brutalized, and even killed. Anyone who cannot compete automatically becomes a victim. Bieito did not have a particular agenda; he is not condemning their actions, although it is inevitable that they elicit feelings of disgust. Rather, he is simply presenting a reality in a matter-of-fact manner. It is, to a large extent, a descriptive picture.

Sex and power often go hand in hand, and Bieito was particularly keen to explore this aspect of the narrative, so there was plenty of sexual violence, including rape. Achilla’s treatment of Cornelia was particularly pertinent in this respect. Although he is commander in chief of the Egyptians, he is on a lower level in the power hierarchy, and so rather than present his sexual infatuation with Cornelia as one of love, it is presented as an act of violence, born of resentment, taken against a defenseless woman who has lost her power. The particularly nasty Tolomeo is depicted as a predator, always on the lookout for chances to inflict himself sexually on others. There is no love involved. It is a manifestation of his power, nothing else.

The staging, designed by Rebecca Ringst, was dominated by a metallic cube-like structure, which rotated so as to provide the stage with different appearances. It also opened up and inclined so that the singers could climb on top of it and look down upon the audience. Occasionally, it was turned into a giant screen on which a variety of video images created by Sarah Derendinger, ranging from hieroglyphics to a giant ice cream, were projected. Michael Bauer’s lighting was expertly used to alter the mood and location. So whereas for large parts of the first act, the stage was dimly lit to create an air of menace, the second act moves to a beach location with sun loungers, ice cream, and bathing costumes, in which the stage is flooded with an orange light.

In fact, the juxtaposition of the elites’ sexual brutality with scenes of relaxation and leisure had the effect of normalizing their behavior, at least within their own group.

Ingo Krügler’s costumes were fittingly business-like for most of the performance, with both men and women costumed in suits or casual wear but with nuanced details to match their characters. Tolomeo’s silver-colored training shoes, for example, were amusing and suitably not quite right! Cleopatra, however, wandered around in whatever she thought appropriate at the moment. During the comical closing scene, Cesare and Cleopatra were dressed in over-the-top gold and black costumes as they presented golden toilets to each other. There are, after all, no limits to the elites’ desire for the pleasures of excess.

A Drama Of Emotional Extremes

It was a production that emphasized the conflict, competition, and aggression that underpin the drama, which Bieito encouraged the singers to express in a very physical manner. Likewise, their singing fizzed with emotional energy. The drama raced along, buoyed by the surging tensions, fears, hatreds, lusts, and violence of its characters.

One figure, however, remained fairly aloof. Giulio Cesare, played by countertenor Christophe Dumaux, never gave his emotions full reign. Yes, he was aggressive, lustful, and physically violent, but he was never so in extremis. There was always a certain degree of control. Vocally, he remained precise and correct, and his bright, homogeneous tone gave his singing a consistent quality that promoted the idea of restraint. His accenting and embellishment of the vocal line were sensitively used to promote his authority and his passions, but again rarely to excess. The overall effect was to give a sense of balance to the drama. Giulio Cesare was the center of the drama around which the turmoil unfolded, and ultimately it was his will that prevailed.

Fuchs Stars As The Queen Of The Nile

The star of the show, however, was soprano Julie Fuchs, whose strong stage presence and vocal brilliance were perfect for the role of Cleopatra. Such was her engagement with her character that every action seemed completely natural, even down to the smallest detail, for which she occasionally added amusing touches of humor, which worked perfectly. Her Cleopatra was a composite of the sexually powerful, manipulative Queen of the Nile we have inherited from the history books and a modern-day woman with a developed sense of irony and a carefree attitude toward the world. Her singing was wonderfully expressive. Recitatives were energetically and passionately delivered. Arias were superbly crafted to bring out their emotional qualities, for which she displayed an impressive amount of detail and versatility. Her aria “Da tempeste il legno infranto” exemplified her skill to good effect, for which she crafted intricate embellishments and beautiful, complex passages of coloratura that were relayed with an easy confidence.

Countertenor Cameron Shahbazi produced a compelling portrait of Cleopatra’s brother and Giulio Cesare’s enemy, Tolomeo. He was vicious and violent, with no sense of empathy or responsibility; he was ambitious, demanding, and cruel; in effect, he was an unrestrained psychopath. There were no redeeming features in his character whatsoever. His tormenting of both Cleopatra and Cornelia was so realistic that it was uncomfortable to watch. His singing was perfectly molded to fit Tolomeo’s unstable personality, in which his ability to coat the voice with malicious intent as he hectored and threatened the people around him, using colorful and dynamic inflections along with occasional snarls and screams, was hair-raising. It was an expressively powerful and strong performance, indeed.

The only character for whom one could feel any sympathy was Pompeo’s wife, Cornelia. Searching only for peace following Cesare’s victory on the battlefield, she is presented with her husband’s severed head and then subjected to the most horrendous treatment from Tolomeo and only a little less so from Achilla. In what must have been an emotionally exhausting performance, mezzo-soprano Teresa Iverolino successfully brought out her inner torment and pain to the extent that her desire to commit suicide became completely believable. Her excellent physical portrayal was supported by her equally strong singing, in which she used the wonderful dark colors of her palette to voice the depths of her suffering.

Cornelia’s son Sesto was played by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Molinari, who provided a suitably energetic and hot-headed portrait of the young man bent on revenging his father’s murder. As the time for vengeance nears, she gives voice to Sesto’s feelings and excitement with a lyrically appealing rendition of her aria “La giustizia ha già sul’arco” that shows off her vocal versatility, colorful palette, and pleasing coloratura. Although it was an aria that caught the attention due to its engaging vocal effects, it also exemplified Molinari’s overall performance, which was distinguished by strong characterization and intelligent singing.

Bass-baritone Frederick Bergman’s Achilla was a thoroughly dislikable and snake-like creature who took advantage of his power at every opportunity. His lusting after Cornelia was particularly unpleasant, as his advances quickly turned into threats of violence when he was rejected. He was a typical product of his environment: power-hungry and aggressive, with no loyalty to anyone. Unfortunately for him, he was not at the top of the hierarchy and suffered the consequences of failure: he was killed on the battlefield after switching loyalties. Bergman’s vocal interpretation was convincing, although at times a little heavy-handed. His recitatives were particularly strong, convincingly capturing his character’s personality.

The cast was completed by the countertenor Jake Ingbar as Cleopatra’s servant Nireno and bass-baritone the Giorgiy Derbas-Richter as the Roman tribune Curio. Both produced solid performances and took their opportunities to display their qualities. Ingbar, in particular, impressed with his beautifully sung aria.

Haïm Elicits High Quality Performance From Le Concert d’Astrée

Emmanuelle Haïm, conducting Le Concert d’Astrée from the harpsichord, engineered a dramatically taught and musically sensitive reading in which she brought out the score’s rhythmic variety and its beautiful textural coloring. Her embellishments of the da capo arias were extensive and inventive, which successfully added to their emotional quality and provided them with a strong forward momentum. The balance between the pit and the stage, as well as within the orchestra itself, was expertly maintained.

This was a masterful production, and not just for the wonderful performances from Haïm and Le Concert d’Astrée or for the excellent contributions from all the singers. It succeeded because it was both a gripping drama, superbly directed by Bieito and relevant to the present day. Of course, it is not unusual for productions to update a drama but rarely do they work as convincingly as in this case. Bieito’s identification of Handel and Haym’s vision of Ancient Rome and Egypt with the realities of today is pertinent and needs to be highlighted. The trend toward further concentrations of wealth and income is allowing an unelected elite to emerge, whose behavior and values are becoming increasingly disconnected from the rest of society, with excessive consumption and the flouting of societal constraints becoming more visible by the day. Only time will tell whether or not the long-term consequences will be positive or negative, but either way, it is important that the matter be widely discussed.


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