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S&H Opera & Ballet Review

HANDEL Giulio Cesare The Early Opera Company/Christian Curnyn 16 November 2001. St John's Smith Square, London
PROKOFIEV
war & peace English National Opera 17 November. The Coliseum, London
PROKOFIEV Cinderella
Lyon National Opera Ballet/Yakov Kreisberg Arthaus DVD 100 234 (PGW)



I knew only one aria, Va tacito with horns, from this opera of 1723/24 by the 38 year old Handel, then at the height of his powers (Giulio Cesare has been revived recently in Amsterdam ). After The Early Opera Company's performance, I am not at all minded to quarrel with the musicologist David Vickers, who believes it is 'arguably the greatest of Handel's extant 38 operas', which were composed for leisured times and need context to make their proper effect; there are dangers in those CDs bringing together a string of highlight arias. In my Classical Catalogue (slightly out-of-date - it is too costly to purchase twice a year!) Giulio Cesare is conspicuously absent, but the BBC Music Magazine had a cover CD of Handel arias, with Lorraine Hunt singing Va tacito magnificently.

Christian Curnyn has made a specialty of semi-staged presentations of Handel operas and I recall, with the greatest pleasure, reviewing long ago The Early Opera Company's production of one of them in a City church. Costume and props accrued gradually through three acts; in the last lighting was cunningly deployed, timed to perfection as darkness descended outside in The Strand. The semi-staging at St John's too was discreet and completely effective, credible relationships sketched in with appropriate gesture and by attention to reactions between the larger than life characters pursuing their amours and political destinies, and nothing to distract from the centrality of the music, which is what had brought us together to hear the old story retold in Nicola Haym's version for Handel.

Things warmed up slowly. The programme synopsis was skimpy, so it took a little time to work things out; there were no texts provided, nor surtitles, to help us through the lengthy Italian recits. The overture and Cesare's first aria (Hilary Summers in black business suit with tie, every inch a London business executive, who grew in stature as the evening progressed) were a little hard driven and hectic. The orchestra of 22 baroque instrumentalists including four natural horns, with Christian Curnyn conducting sympathetically and keeping things on the move throughout at the harpsichord, soon relaxed and played like angels, pointing all the delicious touches of imaginative orchestration, rarely betraying the difficulties of negotiating virtuoso music on period instruments. Some of the singers took a little while to settle down and find their best voice, but this was a long haul, three Acts and 3 hours including a single short interval. Geraldine McCreevy (Cleopatra), who is given several gorgeous arias and a final happy duet with Caesar which put me in mind of the finale of Poppea, put things on the highest level from her first appearance, and dominated every scene in which she took part. She has a beautiful mezzo voice, produced with easy breath control, not over-assertive, a joy to listen to in varied repertoire; all she seems to have lacked is a publicity machine comparable with another mezzo specialist in 18th century operatic repertory.

What was special about Giulio Cesare, in contrast with, say, operas by Richard Strauss, was that virtually all the parts were for low voices. Their 'registers' were not specified in the programme, but Antonia Sotgu (the widow of Pompey, whose head was presented to Cesar in a hatbox) was the only other womanly-woman in the cast. A lovely singer well established in a progressive career, as were all the other singers. Her son Sesto was trousered (Louise Mott), and Cleopatra's brother and her servant/confidante (David Clegg) were both counter-tenors, William Purefoy rising to his important opportunities as a villainous rapist (I could have spared the supermarket cleaning-spray with which he was foiled in his evil designs, and the plastic water pistol with which Sesto didn't commit suicide). By the end, we had warmed to each of the seven singers, who joined in chorus to finish the show, including a dead one (Joao Fernandes, baritone) who was the only cast-iron male to be seen & heard that evening.

St John's was nearly full, and all the participants received enthusiastic ovations from an audience which was tired, maybe, but unbowed. An artistic success and a notably cost effective one for these hard times!

The following day to The Coliseum for a 5.30 Saturday afternoon start (because UK public transport is so difficult, we were told - trains from my part of South East London were cancelled for the whole weekend) of the (fairly) lavish new production of "war & peace" - typography and emphasis as in the programme book - four hours of a very different historical opera event, requiring a cast of hundreds.

A few personal reactions only to seeing again Prokofiev's 'operatic masterpiece'. Noelle Mann reminds us in her essay for the programme book that Prokofiev completed his first opera when he was nine and was continually engaged with the genre throughout his life. Acres of print (eight reviews collected by the indispensable The Opera Critic , that by Andrew Clements best representing my feelings about this revival) have been devoted to the genesis and numerous revivals of Prokofiev's troubled creation, which he never lived to see because the Soviet bureaucrats persisted in rejecting the war scenes as 'failing to conform with socialist tenets'.

The cost-conscious staging was fairly basic, with the movements of the huge chorus well handled (Vanessa Gray) and augmented with photos & newsreel. I found the Peace half deeply disappointing, with Sandra Zeltser (a late substitute, because of illness, making her debut in this great house) not ready to project the charismatic Natasha. But, more seriously, I thought the music (apart from the dances in the ball scene - Prokofiev composed Cinderella during the same years as War & Peace) mostly formulaic and frankly dull; as if he had doggedly set the texts, which signally fail to bring Tolstoy to life, day by day, without their really engaging him totally. The second half seemed to have been composed, rather than assembled, and I found it far more involving. There were nearly 60 named singers for the numerous characters, with some doubling, most of them delivering their cameos well enough and getting across the large, loud orchestra under the able command of Paul Daniel. I enjoyed Graeme Danby as Natasha's father, John Daszak as Pierre, Rebecca de Pont Davies as Princess Marya and Peter Sidhom and Willard White as the rivals Napoleon and Field Marshal Kutzov.

During this same week we had found Prokofiev's Cinderella by the Lyon National Opera Ballet and Orchestra absolutely ravishing (Prokofiev perceived his ballets as of 'secondary importance'), with the piquant score conducted affectionately by Yakov Kreisberg and vividly recorded, with some delightful additional 'music' by Jean Schwarz, compiled from live recordings of pre-speech small children. It is set in a dolls' house and seen by Maguy Marin as through the eyes of a child, evoking universally familiar memories of childhood by presenting the characters as masked living dolls with real human feelings, just as children identify with their toys. Cinderella goes to the ball in a toy car, the Prince pursues his search on a rocking horse, and the Fairy Godmother is a robot. Françoise Joullié's movements as Cendrillon are movingly expressive and the masks are a welcome change from the fixed, expressionless faces so usual in ballet. A hot tip for your Christmas list for the whole family.

Peter Grahame Woolf


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