Surprise, surprise: another Dessay cancellation, the third I have experienced in 15 months. Time to bow out gracefully. Or perhaps that time has actually already passed. Clever work by the Met in delaying the announcement until we were all in our seats. No email notification like Royal Opera (though the Met are happy to send plenty of emails seeking membership and gifts), not even an insert in the Playbill this time. Peter Gelb’s presence on stage was met with derision as it was immediately clear what he was there to announce. The ‘cloud’, however, lived up to the old saying by having a sterling silver lining: the replacement casting of Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra, the role she originated in this production in Glyndebourne.
David McVicar’s handsome new production contains an abundance of variety and movement to maintain audience interest across 275 minutes (including two intervals). Characterisations are uniformly strong, propelling the storytelling despite the intrinsically slow pace of the opera. The work also benefited from moments of cheeky humour.
Changes of time and place are common enough for opera stagings, but the idea of transplanting well known historical characters Caesar and Cleopatra to the British Empire of the 1800s is a little jarring, attractive though the visual concept may be. Further touches, such as sprinklings of 1920s fashion, add to the splendour but also to the confusion.
Robert Jones’ set is a good height for the Met stage, but its narrower width creates significant sight lines issues for the side seating of the wide auditorium. Multiple scenic elements fly in and out, the most appealing of these being the vivid jewel-toned curtains of Cleopatra’s chambers.
Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes are really beautifully realised, with Cleopatra being given a couple of gowns so glitzy they sparkle in the dark. And there is plenty of dark in Paule Constable’s inexplicably dim lighting design. Perhaps an authentic period look is the goal, but we have come to watch the performers, as well as hear them, so we need some light to actually be able to see them.
The role of a choreographer of an opera can often be a nominal one. Andrew George creates delightful work here, adding vaudevillean flourishes, along with Bollywood-esque moves, to the potentially static piece, thus increasing the overall enjoyment level.
Conductor Harry Bicket leads the Met Orchestra in a flawless rendition of the score, the music flowing a smooth purity in which recitative and arias practically blended as one.
The evening turned into an absolute triumph for Danielle de Niese, her joy in performing the role appearing to be as great as the audience’s pleasure in watching her. Exotically beautiful, de Niese radiates charisma whenever she is on stage. Her pure, clear soprano rings out with beauty and strength, her gift for expression expertly conveying Cleopatra’s transition from playful to despondent to joyful. And to top it all off, her nifty execution of the precise, tricky choreography appears effortless. Brava!!
Talent and flair are in plentiful supply throughout the evenly matched cast, with the long evening fairly zipping by with one truly gorgeous aria after another. David Daniels is a solid anchor in the title role, his masculine appearance belying his delicate countertenor voice. Daniels enjoys frisky chemistry with de Niese, and manages the epic role with barely a drop of sweat.
As Cornelia and her son Sextus, Patricia Bardon and Alice Coote are a supremely strong pair, each bringing a noble, highly focused quality to their roles. Bardon achieves particular success in displaying the steely resolve of the tormented Cornelia.
Christophe Dumaux sings with a very strong countertenor as Ptolemy, brother of Cleopatra, also exhibiting a trim and highly agile body. Guido Loconsolo, as General Achillas, is one of the very few men to sing in bass voice and consequently comes across as all the more masculine.
A splendid production overall that is a welcome addition to the Met’s repertoire.
This performance on 9 April 2013 was the second of the current run of Giulio Cesare. It continues at the Met until 10 May 2013, and is due to be filmed for the Live in HD series on Saturday 27 April 2013.
Photos: Simon Parris