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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Opera Review: The Queen, Suddenly Promoted

Danielle De Niese steps in at the Met's Giulio Cesare.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Danielle De Niese swoops in on an east wind as Cleopatra.
Photo by Tristram Kenton © 2005 The Glyndebourne Festival.
Danielle De Niese was only going to the opera last night.

The Australian soprano is not on the Metropolitan Opera's roster of singers this season. She was planning on attending the second performance of the company's new production of Giulio Cesare last night, sitting in general manager Peter Gelb's parterre box and watching the baroque extravaganza starring David Daniels in the title role and Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra.

Then the news broke backstage. Ms. Dessay was ill. The Met suddenly needed a star soprano with experience in the demanding role to take on this production. Ms. De Niese, with a wide experience in Handel including the first performances of this production at Glyndebourne in 2005, suited the bill perfectly. So as Mr. Gelb made the announcement from the stage, Ms. De Niese was cast, costumed, and ready to step back into the role that launched her to stardom.

Giulio Cesare is Handel's most enduring operatic creation, a marathon exploration of the courtship of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra filtered through the tastes of the composer's London audience. The libretto, recycled by Nicola Francesco Haym from earlier versions of the story makes the story into a dense confection, shifting between the misery of the bloodied banks of the Nile to the madness of Cleopatra's brother Tolomeo (Ptolemny, played by Christophe Dumaux) to the misery of the widowed Roman noblewoman Cornelia (Patricia Barden) and her son Sesto's (Alice Coote) obsession with revenge.

Given the short notice, Ms. De Niese rose to the occasion as Cleopatra, using her small but accurate soprano to elevate the Queen of Egypt and hoofing gamely through Mr. McVicar's choreography. More importantly, she caught the full emotional range of this extraordinary monarch. Her playful sexuality and dressing up in her seduction of Caesar was coupled with smooth navigation of the demanding upper register: an irresistible package of vocal skill and personal charisma. A wardrobe malfunction in the bath scene scandalized (or at least titillated) the audience when a satin sheet momentarily dropped, exposing the soprano's body along with her voice.

More importantly, Ms. De Niese projected the pathos of a monarch under siege from her own brother. Her Se pietà di me non senti in Act II caught the character's transformation from vixen to troubled heroine through the simple genius of Handel's melodic writing. The following Piangerò la sorte mia delved into the slow unrolling of the vocal line, expertly accompanied by period performance expert Harry Bicket. When she unleashed her coloratura in the central section of the second aria, the effect was simply stunning. She capped the performance with the florid final aria, unpacking her instrument and summoning high notes that streaked like lasers through the cavernous Met.

In the last 15 years, Mr. Daniels has graduated from the smaller role of Sesto (which he sung at the Met in 1999) to Cesare himself. This is an energetic portrayal of the Roman conqueror, reimagined by Mr. McVicar as a British imperialist bringing his peculiar brand of civilization to the Egyptian people. Mr. Daniels' athletic countertenor rose to the occasion in the florid Act I arias and the Act II  boudoir scenes with Cleopatra. In the third act, his experience in the role and a sense of gung-ho leadership that revitalized audience and the battle scenes.

The supporting players were strong across the board, led by Mr. Dumaux. His countertenor is not as large in its sound as Mr. Daniels' is, but he proved a capable foil, tossing off complex coloratura filigree to indicate the character's inner instability. Ms. Barden caught the heartbreak of Cornelia's plight in her searing Act I duet scene with the mad boy king. As Sesto, Ms. Coote made her trouser part completely convincing, supported by a secure mezzo-soprano. Baritone Guido Loconsolo, the one major low voice in the ensembles made Achilla a classic, sneering baritone villain who sounded like he wandered in from another opera.

Conducting from the harpsichord and playing the continuo himself made Mr. Bicket an integral part of this show, maintaining the momentum and involving the audience in the inner complexities of this style of opera. He was helped by a superb performance from the MET Orchestra, both in the pit and as the onstage banda that accompanies Cleopatra in her efforts to bed Caesar. Mr. McVicar's simple set and clever visual tricks made his reimagined Egypt come alive, and blew the dust of history from this important opera. And isn't that what reviving baroque opera is all about?
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.