Saturday, April 13, 2013

Giulio Cesare and the British Empire

Courtesy of the MetOpera
Three weeks ago I went to listen to Peter Gelb as he chatted with the cast of the new Giulio Cesare on the stage of the Met.  Little did I know Tuesday night as I took my seat he would walk on stage again; this time to announce that Natalie Dessay would not be performing due to illness.  The crowd's disappointment soon turned to elation as he announced her replacement: Danielle De Niese.    

As Peter Gelb explained, Danielle De Niese was supposed to be an audience member that night, but he had called her around noon to ask her to replace Natalie Dessay.  One of the reasons this was possible was that Ms. De Niese was the original Cleopatra in David McVicar's production of Giulio Cesare.  It would have been this production/performance that Peter Gelb would have seen in the UK back in 2005 as he started his career as the Met's General Manager.  In the same year, he also decided to bring Willy Decker's La Traviata to the Met.

McVicar is no stranger to the Met stage, previously having directed Il Trovatore and Maria Stuarda, but this new production was completely brought over as it was originally made, meaning it was not specifically made for the Met.  Hence, there was no prompter's box for example (see my previous post 'Inside the prompter Box').  The singers were polled whether they would mind very much not having one (although they all sounded like this was not the most democratic voting process).  David Daniels, for example, is used to doing performances without one.  He actually enjoys not having a prompter's box because it means the stage is brought forward.  This offers him great contact with the musicians in the pit, especially on a big stage like the Met.

McVicar started of the discussion with some background information on the opera:

  • Giulio Cesare is one of Handel's greatest masterpieces.  It is based on the famous love match between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, which means when watching the opera one is freed from trying to unravel the story.  Unlike other operas where you really need to know what is going on before the opera begins, you do not need to know a whole lot about Caesar to understand this one.  
  • The story takes place when Cleopatra and Caesar meet for the first time in Alexandria.  Civil war has broken out in Egypt and Cleopatra becomes victorious with the help of the Romans.  In McVicar's production, Cleopatra and Caesar are not in Egypt in 48 BC, but they are in a time and place somewhere at the end of the British Empire.    
  • The sets are very simple, in a nod to Handel.  Handel was living in England when he worked on Giulio Cesare, and the most important aspect of this work was to be commercial.  He was pretty much creating a show for the Broadway of his time.  There had to be a special relationship between the singers and the audience, and one way McVicar brings this across is in the physical challenges demanded of the singers.  It was great to hear the audience oooh and aaah as they saw them jump on tables, make summersaults and dance.  
  • Another aspect of being commercial is money, and to save some Handel often had his singers perform double duty.  If he could not afford a chorus, he would have the singers fill in from the wings.  This was not really necessary in this production because most of the singing consisted of arias and recitatives.
This brings us to the way baroque music is set up.  Conductor Harry Bicket, a baroque specialist, explained:

  • The context of the story is so universal and not constricted to the eighteen hundreds.  Handel wrote this opera for an audience in London who did not speak Italian.  He needed to be able to convey to the public what was happening on stage without them understanding a word.  Therefore, it is clear in the music from the beginning what each aria will be about.  A lot of meaning can be gathered from just listening to the music.  
  • In order for the audience to understand what was going on, Handel wrote many repeats in his music.  This is called a da capo aria, which looks a little like A-B-A.  A is sung, then there is a shorter B part in between which often counteracts the A part and then A is repeated.  However, the second time around the meaning is different because of B which came in between.  Confusing?  Yes, but it works.   
  • The story is moved forward and explained mostly through the recitative, which is then followed by an aria.  If all of a sudden you find yourself without subtitles in front of you, you can be assured it means you are listening to a da capo aria, and part A is being repeated.   
And the singers are not the only ones doing double duty.  Harry Bicket is not only the conductor, but he also plays the harpsichord in this production.  A second conductor takes over as he joins the musicians in the pit.  In this case, the pit is actually raised, which is nice for the orchestra (about 25 big) because they often do not hear what is going on onstage.  Mr. Bicket enjoys playing the harpsichord because it brings him closer to the singers and it creates a type of chamber music atmosphere.  He listens to certain cues in the singers' voices, often consonants, to know when he needs to start playing.  The audience certainly enjoyed it.    

In the end, Natalie Dessay emphasized this is a physically demanding role, with lots of dancing (Bollywood style), and also very demanding on the voice.  The expectations for a da capo aria is that once A is repeated, it needs to be a vocal variation with lots of ornaments.  It needs to wow the audience, otherwise a baroque opera has a tendency to become dull.  She does not think too far ahead about the next arias and takes it moment by moment, but the rehearsal process itself has been very hard.  Every detail is rehearsed, from the tiniest hand movement to where a singer stands for his next aria.

You still have time to go see Giulio Cesare at the Met, and if you don't have tickets yet I would run to the box office.  Even if you think baroque music is not for you, you will be pleasantly surprised.  I have never seen this opera before, so McVicar's Cesare is the first production I saw, and I loved it.  It felt light, young and refreshing.  To me, this is as close to a marriage between Broadway and opera as you will get.  I am sure Natalie Dessay would feel the same way.  As she explained at the end of the Met Talk, she is widening her horizon and has set her sights on Broadway.  Giulio Cesare might just be the bridge that brings both worlds closer together.  I am sure Handel would have appreciated this.