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Bravura In The Face Of Trash

A personal note: I know I am terribly late publishing this. Something always got in the way. For the sake of completeness: Here’s my review. The performance was at the Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, on August 29, 2012.

by Lankin

I had seen the production of Julius Caesar already as a stream from the Pfingsfestspiele; to see it live was something entirely different still. As I wrote down my opinion on the staging before, I will now focus on the singers, and the performance of that night.

Of the many Händel favourites of mine, Julius Caesar is especially dear to my heart, for a whole bunch of reasons. I first knew it through sheet music alone; my first recording was the René Jacobs one from 1992 with Jennifer Larmore. I’ve never managed to fall out of love with the opera since then.

Of the many reasons why I like this opera so much, let me pick one: It is Sesto’s aria “Cara speme.” I have to digress a little to explain why this peace is especially important to me.

Giulio Cesare is a love story – a rather simple plot as it seems. Caesar and Cleopatra meet, they fall in love, and to make an opera even possible, there has to be some trouble ensuing, which is done by adding outside hardships and challenges, putting the lovers to the test.

The main characters of Julius Caesar are quite black and white. Caesar has to prove his virtue, more specifically, his cardinal virtues, to make him a rightful ruler. While Caesar proves his justice, prudence, temperance, and courage, his counterpart, Tolomeo, sets out to disprove them for himself one by one. Cleopatra starts out like a girl – I have heard once that she is supposed to be 16 in the opera, and at least the “Non disperar” completely starts in this feeling. After the first act, we know she is fun to be with, she is charming, and by the end of the opera we know she is brave, and has depth to her character as well – a perfect match for Caesar.

Now Händel and the librettist make this simple setup complex; he adds depth by what appear to be secondary characters at first – Cornelia and Sesto. The story could be told completely without them, after all, or with their parts cut short. So, why are they even in the opera, and moreover, why did Händel give arias and duets to them that make it seem that the opera should be called “Sesto e Cornelia” at times, and not “Julius Caesar”? A safe guess would be that he wanted it that way.

Sesto and Cornelia don’t show a healthy mother/son-relationship – at its best, it could be called codependency. For the Sesto of this production, at least, Caesar’s approval doesn’t matter so much. Cornelia’s does. Can you imagine this Sesto dating someone, eventually? Cornelia as a mother in law? Excuse me while I …

Cornelia has has a twisted, rigid sense of virtue and morality. Depicting her as a mother who sends her own (step-)son off with a belt stuffed with explosives was a picture that fit. She seems utterly defenseless, but is highly manipulative at the same time. She even threatens to kill herself. Her outbreaks, her stating that she is a Roman after all, no match for a Egyptian, seem fake – after all, even Caesar has no problem with relationships across nations or “races.” Manipulative, depressive, a little racist – for her, the end justifies the means.

Händel could have reduced Sesto’s part to the “vengeance” arias, as “L’angue offeso,” and “La giustizia ha già sull’arco.” He didn’t – he included the “Cara speme.” This three minutes piece makes all the difference.

The Sesto who sings this is not a murderer. The listener gets a glimpse at how Sesto really is, his dreams, and hopes. The piece marks a clashing contrast to the further events, when Sesto gets more and more instrumentalized.

So, when it comes to Sesto’s part, this was the aria I looked most forward to. Jaroussky managed to turn the aria into a show-stopper; to hear him perform it made the trip to Salzburg worthwhile already.

To be able to hear it in Salzburg, with the spectacular cast of which apart from Philippe Jaroussky, I had only ever heard Jochen Kowalski live, was a special occasion. I avoided things that could distract me too much from the performance to come beforehand, and enjoyed that I could stay at a relative’s flat, which cut the necessary organization to a minimum.

It has been a good while since I last had the chance to go to Salzburg, and it used to be very different. The festival audience was well-behaved and I don’t doubt many were there for the music. However, I heard more talk about fashion, shoes, and politics than about music, which disappointed me a little.

This contributed somehow to sort of a shallow taste that Salzburg left behind for me. Fastidious, neat, and a bit stuck in the times when T-shirts printed with a vaguely recognizable violin and Mozart’s counterfeit seemed a good idea.

The performance started with a “Viva, viva, …” from the choir that was kind of an understatement, and I wondered if the spirit would continue. It didn’t; the cast seemed to try to surpass themselves, so the overall effect was similar to that of hearing Gruberova sing “I Puritani” live – no matter how often I had heard the arias before, I was literally hanging on the singers’ lips.

Somehow the musicians worked the magic, to move the audience, and to make the performance outstanding – despite the setting that recalled 80’s trash TV as well as The Muppets, as the man sitting next to me observed. (We must have been Waldorf and Statler then, I just notice.) I don’t say I got all the potshots at other stagings, but I spotted a few.  Händel didn’t mock his own competitors in his music – if he did, it must have been very discrete – so to use his work to shell something as petty as personal attacks against competitors just didn’t seem right.

La Bartoli

Cecilia Baroli is – Cecilia Bartoli. “Eine reizende Person,” according to the man next to me – which translates to “a charming person;” but a Viennese accent turns the phrase into a huge compliment.There is no way around it – the audience was bound to love her, and did.

To say she is a professional through and through wouldn’t quite capture it. She is in herself a piece of art, and her sheer overwhelming, exuberant personality distracted me at times from the role she was playing. That she even broke character when someone yelled “Bravissima!” right after the last note of the Parnassus scene – she cheerfully waved down from the torpedo on which she ascended to the heavens – fit this impression. I didn’t mind so much; I had already succumbed to the fact that I wouldn’t see and hear Cleopatra that night, but Bartoli.

Nevertheless, from her, “Venere bella” was the loveliest aria ever, and “Se pietà” was heartbreaking.

Andreas Scholl

Andreas Scholl has a vast routine in playing Julius Caesar. The role fits his voice very well – a very lyrical voice with a wonderful timbre. Naturally, the “Alma del gran Pompeo” as well as the “Aure, deh, per pietà” turned out to be a homerun for him that night.

The first two arias I found well-delivered, but rather pale, which I blame on the fact that they are rather on the dramatic side. That he dropped into full chest voice at the end of the phrases of “Empio, dirò, tu sei” to spice it up, maybe, wasn’t a good idea in my opinion. He had his troubles even later on, especially in the middle register, where his voice didn’t really manage to hover over the accompaniment. His “Aure, deh, per pietà” was his best aria that night, I found. I managed to talk to him later on, and told him I felt honoured to have heard him live – I was honest.

Extra credits go to the horn player for a flawless “Va tacito.”

Philippe Jaroussky

Dumaux entertained me, Von Otter impressed me, but of all the singers Jaroussky alone managed to move me. He was splendid! I really, honestly, don’t know who put the idea into his head that he had a “tiny voice.” He was the one best understandable, and best audible over the orchestra pit – even in his pianissimi. He seemed to give it a little extra conviction though, compared to the Pfingstfestspiele. For the feeling of the “revenge”-arias like “L’angue offeso,” this was overall becoming the character of the piece, but at the same time it gave his voice a sharper edge I’m not sure whether I like. The “Cara speme,” however, made up for all the tiny points of critique I might have had, and even those weren’t objective but just discrepancies between expectation and reality.

I’m always fascinated when I hear Jaroussky live, as he sounds different every time, in every role and in every piece. I’ve heard people say that his mimics are great, but that there was room for improvement for his acting in total – I somewhat disagree. He is the role – you hear it in his voice. It’s not the same PJ who is singing “Cum dederit.”

“Son nata/o a lagrimar” was even better than the version from the livestream, if such a thing is possible.

For the record: The “La Giustizia ha già sull’arco” should have got more applause, as always. In my humble opinion, the most nasty aria of Sesto’s to sing, and even more, to render convincingly.

La Otter

Of all the singers, von Otter’s voice surprised me most. It was much warmer, and fuller than it appears on her latest recordings. She was simply spectacular. Her “Priva son” was a tough competition to Bartoli’s “Se pietà”. Her embellishments were great, tasteful, unique, and in-style. Perfection.

Jochen Kowalski

I value Jochen Kowalski’s achievements; he is a person I deeply respect, so I gnawed long on what to write here. His “Orfeo” was great – but this was the 1990s. Now, his acting seemed out-dated, and at times got on my nerves, mainly due to the fact that it seemed to add extra weight to a character that is basically a comic relief role, and not much more. This one is highly subjective, of course, as well as to blame on the staging, and not primarily on Mr. Kowalski.

I understand that the “Chi perde un momento” was left in and not omitted, but the idea to extend this aria unduly – by adding many ritardandi, rubati and embellishments in the da capo – until the nice, charming, and even fun aria before the Parnassus scene finally became a drag wasn’t doing him a big favour. Caesar’s facial expression there mirrored my own – “Can’t we have ‘V’adoro’ already?”

I still wonder why they turned Nireno into a Nirena in the production – I don’t have an answer.

Christophe Dumaux

Christophe Dumaux has an outstanding voice – cultivated and unique. His renditions were close to flawless.

What was definitely a lot different from the live-stream was that at the actual performance, I could choose where to look. I ended up looking a lot at Jaroussky, naturally, even if he wasn’t singing, and as a close second, Dumaux, who is definitely worth watching, which I agreed upon with the charming man next to me. We cast each other a conspirative glance or two while Dumaux took outrageousness to a new level. He was wonderfully evil. I bet quite a few in the audience of both sexes would have wanted to be that pillow crumpled between his legs. Well, Evil’s the new Sexy. He kept the rogue smile after the performance, enjoying to head off first into the anonymity of the crowd, adorned with rather scruffy clothes. I guess he is always smiling as if he was plotting something. He was a perfect cast for Tolomeo.

Just an afternote: I accidentally talked to the oboe-players during the break. We mainly talked about the flawless horn solo of the “Va tacito” then, and with a bit of a bad conscience, I promised to give their part closer attention as well in the parts to come. I did. So, dear oboists, just in case you should ever read this – You were great!

I managed to meet Mr. Jaroussky after, at the stage entrance – he was charming, and very kind, as always.

I didn’t try to talk to the rest of the cast, but I ended up waiting next to Mr. Scholl; we chatted a bit, or rather, I blabbered – at least, Scholl gifted me a grin. Well, I’m always glad if I can entertain.


Giovanni Antonini, Musikalische Leitung
Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Inszenierung
Christian Fenouillat, Bühne
Agostino Cavalca, Kostüme
Christophe Forey, Licht
Konrad Kuhn, Dramaturgie
Beate Vollack, Choreografie


Andreas Scholl, Giulio Cesare, römischer Imperator
Cecilia Bartoli, Cleopatra, Königin von Ägypten
Anne Sofie von Otter, Cornelia, Pompeos Witwe
Philippe Jaroussky, Sesto, Pompeos und Cornelias Sohn
Christophe Dumaux, Tolomeo, König von Ägypten, Cleopatras Bruder
Jochen Kowalski, Nirena, Kammerdienerin
Ruben Drole, Achilla, General, Tolomeos Berater
Peter Kálmán, Curio, römischer Tribun
Il Giardino Armonico

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