Julius Caesar was slain in the Roman Senate on 13 March — those Ides, those Ides — 44 BC. Giulio Cesare in Egitto, arguably Handel’s most successful history opera seria, was gutted, diced and served up as an embarrassing opera comedia onstage in Olavinlinna Castle, Savonlinna, Finland on 30 July 2022. Both dead on arrival.
The overreaching Roman Emperor was stabbed 23 times, fate sealed by a conspiracy of 44 senators. Giulio Cesare perished at the hands of one man; Marin Blažević, stage director, Artistic Director of the Croatian National Theatre, deadly agent of Regietheater International, opera’s Smersh.
The goal of this self-aggrandising Illuminati of opera? World opera house domination, imposing their views on what the medium should be, transposing composers’ original settings to different eras, altering plots to suit à la mode whims, changing chronology and identity of characters to satisfy politically correct prejudice and generally infecting the repertoire. More at the pace of Monkeypox than Coronavirus, so no need for global panic, just yet.
It is nothing short of a tragedy that the Savonlinna Opera Festival, Finland’s showcase annual operatic event, wonderfully set in the interior courtyard of the stunning 15th century triple-turreted Olavinlinna Castle in the Kyrönsalmi strait, separated from the Savonlinna shore by a short, pontoon bridge, should have succumbed to the wiles of the necromancer, Blažević.
What did Handel intend for Giulio Cesare? A full synopsis can be found here. It is a serious drama.
The action is based on Julius Caesar’s Egyptian visit of 48-47 BC. Caesar has defeated Pompey, a rival Roman general, at Pharsalia in Greece and pursued him to Egypt, where Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy are joint sovereigns.
True, this is history-drama, with Caesar and Sextus portrayed as much younger than their counterparts in history. Cleopatra and Ptolemy are in the midst of a power struggle. Ptolemy, in a fit of youthful exuberance, misinterprets Caesar’s intentions towards Pompey, to be reconciled to his old adversary, and delivers the general’s head in a basket. Consternation.
Power struggle in Egypt. Two candidates for Pharaoh, Ptolemy and Cleopatra. The ballots go out. GCHQ warns of interference by Caesar, who votes with his sword. The rest is … well … history.
Handel and Italian librettist, Nicola Francesco Haym, a dab hand at adapting the texts of others — in this case of Giacomo Francesco Bussani, who wrote a libretto on the same subject for Antonio Sartorio — produced a work that was compelling, tragic, populated by characters with conflicting agendas. A true psychodrama, demanding attention. Opera seria in spades.
In Olavinlinna, Act I opened as a first rehearsal. Music stands, backed by computer screens at head level were ranked front stage. The singers strolled on in mufti, chatting amongst themselves, adjusting selfie cameras, stood or sat at their music stands facing the audience and those not actively involved in the action continued distracting “noises off” as the action proper cranked up.
Stage right, a construction project was underway. A lardy guy with an overhanging beer gut, naked save for a pair of flapping, flesh-coloured shorts, started howking large silver boxes, appearing in a seemingly endless flow from under the stage, to what passed for the wings, still in full view.
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Lardy-guy persisted with this labour of Sisyphus throughout all three Acts. Three hours of … what? When he was getting somewhere the blocks glowed red, gold, white. Aha! He was building a pyramid. Never mind that he was 2,400 years too late. This was “significant” Blažević symbolism. About something.
As the final ensemble drew to a close it was inevitable that Lardy-guy would destroy his carefully built pyramid. And he did, to much audience laughter, probably not the intended reaction. He took a bow, to huge acclaim. Finland is short of builders. Perhaps the audience was wondering if he did “homers”. This act of distraction was symbolic. Of something.
Behind the singers, dancers were in a permanent state of limbering up, building their parts with ever more impossible contortions and “getting in on the act”.
Bananas. Real bananas. A towering edifice of bananas was passed around the singers in a large bowl. They smirked, exchanged confidences, and succumbed to the munchies, all during some of Act I’s most moving arias, not least from Cornelia, Pompey’s wife, when she learns of her widowhood.
In the meantime, her grief was somewhat undermined by her husband’s head being tossed playfully among the characters like a playground ball. What larks! When Cornelia wasn’t avoiding the flying bananas, she had to be wary of the errant head.
Blažević’s declared objective was to morph gradually from today’s real world, represented by the “Sitzprobe” rehearsal scene, to the substantive plot of the opera. “The biggest challenge in staging this work was avoiding just telling the story,” says Blažević. Too right, chummy, you destroyed it.
I could almost forgive an academically rigorous Regietheater approach, while not necessarily liking it. What is beyond the pale is Blažević’s careless ignorance. He describes Giulio Cesare as a “Shakespearean romance”. Do some homework.
Handel and Haym sidestepped Shakespeare. Where’s Mark Anthony? It is impossible to resist the thought that Blažević came to bury Handel, not to praise him. What’s his point? I recommend that Blažević and his ilk go and write their own operas rather than presenting mangled versions of carefully crafted masterpieces.
Even as the characters donned their costumes and with music stands and gawking screens removed — did I really need to be subjected to a 1080 HD selfie looking up Caesar’s nostrils? — morphed from orchestra rehearsal to full performance, Blažević could not resist hamming it up.
Caesar’s Act I aria, Va tacito e nascosto, is, for me, the epitome, of a moving, dignified Handel aria. A marching rhythm and compelling melodic line. A high point of the work. Typical Handel, grabbing the cojones of his audience with a series of horn calls.
During the florid improvisations of the da capo section, Caesar locked horns, literally, with the horn player in the pit, each trying to outdo the other with increasingly impossible phrases. Eventually, Caesar wins, and the horn player proffers the horn, challenging him to do better.
Very funny, and it raised a guffaw, but this was London Palladium antics at their most infantile. More was to follow, with modern weapons being drawn from a box in Act II, of increasingly unlikely size, until what looked like a Himars missile was being swung randomly around the audience.
The production came courtesy of Croatian National Theatre. The soloists were excellent, especially countertenor, Franko Klisović, who has mastered the unusual skill of enunciating while masticating a banana. The Rijeka Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Benjamin Bayl was superb. Closed eyes rendered the evening a perfect Handel experience.
I partly blame conductors of authority, like Bayl, for indulging incontinent directors. Stand up to them if they are bent on destroying an artwork. Squashing a Turner in the Tate would be frowned upon. At least iconoclast Cornelia Parker’s steamroller-flattened brass instruments are confined to her own exhibition space.
More about the enchanting atmosphere of Savonlinna, it’s festival and a successful double bill, Harlekiini Arlecchino, Ferruccio Busoni, and Gianni Schicchi, Giacomo Puccini, next week.
This Giulio Cesare, coming hard on the heels of Glyndebourne’s wonderful Alcina, needed no distractions to exorcise completely. Handel murdered as surely as Pompey. Et tu, Blažević!