Monday evening at La Scala they put on a performance of Haendel’s “Julius Caesar in Egypt”, rare in Italy but popular in the rest of Europe,and unsurprisingly so , being such a perfect fusion of dramatic action and musical inventivity. Companies tend no longer to meddle with casting, the days they substituted the counter tenors for other voices are gone and we have moved back to a closer reading of the original ; apparently the director Giovanni Antonini brought his own horn-players to add to the orchestra and perhaps all the basso continuo (low bass) players too. There was a lot of excitement and interest surrounding this opera, the premiss was that it was very long….. but the moment it started you knew those 3 hours 50 minutes were just going to slip away. Everything was perfect including the updated costumes and scenery, we were somewhere , sometime in the Middle East in camouflage uniforms during a power struggle: 2 civil wars going on at the same time, between Caesar against Pompey, and Ptolemy against Cleopatra, sex,power ,violence in a nutshell.
The stratagems used by Robert Carsen to amuse added a very light touch to the proceedings and don’t seem at all out of place. Carsen compares the rapid scene changes to a modern cinematic work, a comparison often used when talking about Shakespeare’s rapid scene changes. But he also says that J.C is like a baroque pearl which doesn’t have a definiite form, a perfect example of impure art. We see machine guns even in the heiroglyphic wall paintings, flashes from the various film Cleopatras (so Claudette Colbert, Vivian Leigh and Liz Taylor). And we see Cleopatra in her bubble bath. In the gran finale the opening of an oil pipeline and the loading of the barrels while two participants at the peace talk take photos with their smart phones. What very often can seem forced and ridiculous, really worked here. It gave back to the opera the idea of light entertainment, humour, fun as well as seriousness. .
On to the music; I love counter tenors the fascination of their voices, the myths surrounding them, you might remember the Italian film Farinelli? The important arias are too many to mention. One which stands out for me is the lament of Cornelia (Pompey’s widow) for her dead husband. It was most moving. I had this flash of quite unexpected empathy with war victims that no film had ever managed to give me before, it was simply heart -rending, unbearable. It’s strange how a combination of painted scenery, fiction, song and fairly expected words (Priva son d’ogni conforto/e pur speme di morir) could move to such appreciation and partecipation in pain. When the widow slowly pulled a black headscarf over her head it was almost unendurably sad. That’s art, that’s why we still go to witness “stuff” written hundreds of years ago, thats why!