“Not often they give us Handel!” I spoke with enthusiasm to the elderly gentleman seated nearby as we waited for the Met @ the Movies to start. I was excited about what I was about to hear, but as all he said was “Thank heavens, no!” I understood he wasn’t as jacked as I was about our prospective entertainment.
Giulio Cesare was first performed in 1724. It was a hit in its day and has again acquired traction among Baroque opera fans. I was familiar with the music because during the 80’s, when I’d began researching Mozart, I’d acquired a Handel CD called “Arias for Senesimo,” featuring Drew Minter, a trailblazing countertenor vocalist. Mozart, I knew, had frequently written for castratos, who were still a feature of his operatic world, and I wanted to get a sense of what that sound was like. And I say trailblazing, because our society no longer finds it acceptable to castrate boys in order to preserve their vocal high range, so these operatic roles were, until recently, sung by cross-costumed women. At the time I began exploring this musical tradition, I’d read the works of aficionados who sternly maintained that countertenors-- men who can sing beautifully either in “head voice” or “falsetto”—did not have voices of “true operatic quality.” (Take your pick for how to describe the countertenor’s method of sound production.) Thirty years later, however, attitudes seem to have changed and there are many talented countertenor singers now performing at the summit of the operatic world.
As was usual at the Met @ The Movies, I was the youngest person present, a phenomenon which saddens me. I sincerely hope that opera, that glorious, arcane art, is not on its way to the culture junkyard. I have to admit that Giulio Cesare is definitely not the kind of opera you’d take a neophyte to hear/see. Not everyone can handle the sight of man with a beard and a substantial belly singing soprano. And this particular dramatic form, Opera Seria, was already considered “old-fashioned” in Mozart’s time. There isn’t a lot of character development or action. The structure of each aria is not complex, either. In their own day they were often noted simply as an “Aria of Love,” an “Aria of Rage,” an “Aria of Joy,” etc.
I spent the next 4 ½ hours watching an all-star cast, with 3 countertenor leads. Caesar was sung by the brilliant David Daniels, while his antagonist, Tolomeo, was played with crazy flair by Christophe Dumaux. A third countertenor role was sung by Rachid Ben Abdeslam, whose sweet, supple voice would have been praised by Mozart as “pouring like oil from a bottle.” Further gender bending occurred as Alice Coote took the part of a Roman boy in what is traditionally called a “trouser role.”
As tolerant as I am of period quirks, I was happy that the legendary femme fatale Cleopatra was played by a woman, the multi-talented Natalie Dessay. At the finale, she performed a song and dance number which showed that not only could she sing opera, but she could dance to it, too, and be as cute while she did so as any full-time Broadway hoofer.