by Roderick Conway Morris

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Julius Caesar Meets Tyrannosaurus Rex

By Roderick Conway Morris
MUNICH 12 February 1997


A life-sized dinosaur, a severed head in a plastic shopping bag, killer sharks and a rocket that blasts off in Act 2 and plummets to Earth in Act 3 are just some of the features that characterize Richard Jones's production of 'Giulio Cesare in Egitto' ('Julius Caesar in Egypt') at the Bavarian State Opera, where it was rapturously received by a packed house.

'Giulio Cesare' was one of the first of Handel's long-neglected operas to be revived -- at the Gottingen Festival in the 1920s -- and it has since been the most frequently staged of the composer's 39 Italian operas. The work's appeal rests on its ravishing and constantly inventive music, and the story of Julius Caesar's conquest of Egypt and his love affair with Cleopatra (who later followed him to Rome and bore him a son). The plot is relatively easy to follow for an audience that does not understand Italian.

The 'language problem' -- especially given the firm opposition of Peter Jonas, the Munich Opera's administrative and artistic director, to surtitles and the theater's commitment (amply rewarded by its box-office returns) to try to attract the widest possible audience -- goes some way toward explaining the burlesque aspects of Jones's interpretation.

The main protagonists of 'Giulio Cesare' constantly address and refer to the stars ('le stelle'), fate and destiny so Jones, and the set designer, Nigel Lowery, provide an overarching night sky, the Milky Way spotted with celestial bodies the size of soccer balls. Two moon-like planets, red and white, suspended in this heavenly vault, symbolize the work's two grand themes: Love (Venus) and War (Mars). The giant Tyrannosaurus Rex that towers over the stage when the curtain comes up is something of a riddle, until the cretaceous colossus topples over, presaging the fall of Cleopatra's cruel tyrant-king brother Tolomeo (Ptolemy), who has inadvisedly sent noble-hearted, magnanimous Caesar the head of his erstwhile enemy Pompey in that plastic bag. And when Cleopatra bewitches Caesar, the love-struck Roman is enticed into the jaws of an outsize Venus Flytrap, which snaps shut, literally swallowing him up.

While purists might regard such gags as provocative and irreverent, no such prejudice exists among new Handel enthusiasts, to judge by audience reactions. And Handel operas were, after all, supposed to divert, even amaze, otherwise they could hardly have dominated the commercial London stage for three decades in the 18th century when they were first written.

FOR a long time after the rediscovery of these operas, they were mercilessly abridged. The trims for this production, however, in keeping with the current search for authenticity, are discreet and intelligently made, and the show goes on for nearly four hours.

Playing with their usual professionalism, the Munich Opera orchestra, vigorously conducted by Ivor Bolton, achieves a creditable impression of baroque sound. However, the stopped horns, to take but one example, simply cannot match the 'natural,' unstopped instruments for which Handel wrote his marvelous antiphonal final fanfare. Given the respect shown here for the integrity of the music, it is a pity that period instruments are not being played.

Ann Murray, in camouflage kilt, maroon jacket with epaulets, and bald head, portrays the eponymous hero (as she did in last year's equally modernistic 'Xerxes,' directed by Martin Duncan, which will also figure in this year's Munich Opera Festival in July), providing once again the indefatigable engine that drives the whole production along. Murray's energy seems as limitless as her ability to handle with panache any physical challenge a director throws at her -- managing here to project her voice crisply and audibly even singing face down after she has dragged herself out of those shark-infested waters onto the beach.

Pamela Coburn conveys the necessary blend of strength and vulnerability in her convincing Cleopatra (one of Handel's most powerful realizations of character-in-music), and an excellent Kathleen Kuhlmann brings dignity and pathos to Cornelia, Pompey's widow, the most challenging major role to carry off in the entire opera, and works well with an engaging and accomplished Trudeliese Schmidt, as her son Sesto.

There will be festival performances of 'Giulio Cesare' on July 13 and 16, and of 'Xerxes' on July 23.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024