Wednesday, March 9, 2005

“It’s very easy to criticize.” “Fun too!”: Giulio Cesare in Copenhagen

I will never understand why writing a positive review is so much more difficult than writing a negative one, and I somehow doubt that I will ever stop being surprised by it either. Why should it be easier to criticize than to praise? Is it because we hold things we find beautiful closer to our hearts that makes them so much more difficult to quantify as words? Ask me about something I don’t like, and I can go on and on, thinking of new ways to tear apart and insult, but ask me about something I enjoy or love, and I find, as T.S. Eliot wrote, that “Words strain,/Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension,…Decay with imprecision…” It becomes like trying to weave a cobweb out of silk ribbon; the ribbon can never be as gossamer and light as spider silk, and will slither and slide over itself until it unravels. Thoughts and words are two different media—and to further complicate matters, music is a third, more immediate than words, but less so than thought—so the best I can do is approximate.

After hearing (and seeing) Andreas Scholl perform the role of Giulio Cesare, it is easy to understand why the Romans would want to deify their emperors, and yet, paradoxically, Scholl’s Cesare is the first Cesare I have seen who is a man, who is a true human character and not just a cardboard cut-out wearing epaulets. Part of this feeling arises from the ease with which Scholl sings; one feels that his alto voice is his true voice, not just a voice that he’s putting on. During the long passages of coloratura, he doesn’t rock back and forth like some other singers or contort his face, and yet each note emerges clean, concise, perfect. Scholl also uses his baritone chest voice occasionally, which some may look on as a mistake (like the reviewer in Los Angeles who, upon hearing Scholl dip into his baritone register in Messiah, assumed it was a result of faulty technique), but which in actuality is very dramatically effective; the single line shouted in a baritone voice represented a loss of control on Cesare’s part, overwhelmed by anger and disgust, his public persona dropped momentarily.

I was also very impressed by Scholl’s acting. The Glyndebourne Rodelinda from the late 1990s is the only staged opera performance I have seen him in, and that was on video, but I feel that he has become a wonderful singing actor, and with more experience on the operatic stage, he will be one of those singers who can immerse themselves completely in a role, both vocally and histrionically. Watching Scholl’s performance as Bertarido, I sometimes felt that I was standing too close to a Cézanne still-life; each facet of the performance was like a separate stroke of paint. The vocal acting was there; Scholl had total mastery over the music and an amazing sensitivity to the emotional motivation of each aria, but the vocal acting rarely seemed to coincide convincingly with the physical side of things. But now, it is like stepping back from the canvas and, instead of seeing something hard-angled, seeing a perfect lemon or apple, rounded, full, and beautiful. Scholl’s Cesare is without a doubt a heroic figure, but he is also a lover, a leader, and a man with a sense of humor and set of morals. This Cesare was the first I’ve seen that seemed more active than acted upon, the first to seem upset or disgusted by the murder of Pompey, the first to even seem sympathetic to Sesto and Cornelia. Further proof of Scholl’s growth as an actor is in his reactions to the other singers. His chemistry with all of them was very strong in direct interaction, but as another character was singing, he would often be very subtly reacting to them. It was not at all distracting, and done in a completely non-hammy way; it seems more of an instinctive reaction, unrehearsed and unchoreographed, or another sign of his total immersion in the role. I have noticed a similar trait in Simon Keenlyside, and it immeasurably adds to the realism of the performance, as if they are thinking, “How would I react to this in my life? What can I do to make this seem more real?” Too often operatic situations are outlandish or unrealistic, even if the themes they portray are universal, and just that extra bit in a facial expression or a gesture can make all the difference. Scholl’s stage presence is now staggering, but it is not a result of his physique or even the eye-catching, light-gathering piquance of his face; he is the complete package.

The stage direction allowed for many memorable moments during Cesare’s arias, such as the hilarious “my throne is higher than yours” contest with Tolomeo during “Va tacito” or the flirtatious musical duel with the first violinist, who fought her losing battle beautifully (she played charismatically and flirted right back at Scholl’s Cesare, but it was like the moon reflecting the light of the sun), in “Se in fiorito”. “Empio diro tu sei” was a mad, though expertly negotiated, dash through long passages of coloratura, which is Baroque opera-speak for “Now we must kung fu fight!” But the most affecting moments for me were when Scholl was alone on stage, singing the more quiet, introspective arias “Alma del gran Pompeo” and “Aure, deh per pieta”. “Alma” had never made that much of an impression on me, to the extent that I can’t even recall if the other Cesares I have seen even sang it, but in Scholl’s hands, it became a wistful, reflective soliloquy, equal in dramatic impact to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” or Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”, and sung with exquisite sensitivity to the words and a pure, clear sound that nearly defies description.

But the true masterpiece, especially in the March 9th perfomance, was “Aure, deh per pieta”. According to the libretto, the setting of the aria is the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and although in this production, the sea was nowhere to be found onstage, it wasn’t needed—Andreas Scholl painted the scene with his voice better than any set designer could have. His singing is synaesthetic; it fills the mind’s eye with visions of rippling iridescent silks; it tickles the skin like a gentle whisper of breeze. His voice is like moonlight, pure and clear; it makes everything it touches clearer as well, not blurred by brilliant color. This is not to say that Scholl’s voice is emotionless, cold, or colorless. The colors that run through his voice are like the fragile rainbows on the surface of a bubble; they gleam and undinally shift like the varying tints of a moonstone; they sparkle and glitter like the heart of an opal. I doubt that my skin will ever be completely uncinched from all the goosebumps that the long, held notes in “Aure, deh per pieta” pricked up.

The rest of the cast was excellent as well, vocally and dramatically. Randi Stene’s Cornelia seemed to my ears too verismo for Handel at first, but I think this might be a result of the relative lack of ornamentation in Cornelia’s arias and the complete abandon with which Stene threw herself into her performance. Her arias were heartbreaking, but her Cornelia always remained noble and proud. Tuva Semmingsen’s Sesto was the first dynamic Sesto I have seen. Usually Sesto starts out a whippersnapper and ends a whippersnapper, but Semmingsen gave the character a true progression from boyhood into adulthood. The Sesto who, wide-eyed, reached for the box containing his father’s severed head was definitely not the same Sesto who killed Tolomeo and delivered his severed head in a bloodstained sack. Semmingsen allowed glimpses of the old Sesto to show through in the new Sesto, which made his transformation even more dramatic. All of Sesto’s arias were delivered in a clear, full voice that rang beautifully in the higher passages but could sink into a lower contralto range as well.

Palle Knudsen was a muscular Achilla (in several senses of the word) and seemed far less robotic than the Achillas I’ve seen before. They always acted like they had been programmed to love Cornelia, but Knudsen made Achilla more rounded than that; he genuinely seemed torn between his heart and his loyalty to his king. Michael Maniaci’s lovely, agile voice soared through Nireno’s one aria, and he made it through all of Nireno’s bizarre Mr. Roboto dancing without cracking up, which is pretty commendable.

It’s difficult to decide what to feel about Christopher Robson’s Tolomeo. He played it as a character role, sacrificing vocal beauty for the sake of laughs or for characterization. Usually, this would annoy me, because I listen to opera for beautiful singing (among other things), but I also understand that sometimes ugliness has its purpose too. In opera, where so much about a character is revealed in just the sound of the voice, singing Tolomeo unattractively makes perfect sense. Tolomeo is evil; he has no redeeming qualities, so why should he sound beautiful? It was also a refreshing change to see Tolomeo played as a campy supervillain rather than an over-the-top homosexual. Too often in movies and television, villains are given stereotypical homosexual traits, regardless of whether the character is homosexual or not. Robson was comic but not effeminate; he never simpered or capered around in women’s silk pajamas with half-nude male slaves. When this Tolomeo sat on one of his soldier’s backs, it was because his feet were tired and he’s a jerk, not because he likes the firmness of man-flesh under his butt. Robson came very close to being over-the-top, like when he reached under his bathrobe and made it...ahem...flutter a little, but I really liked the slight evil, sadistic touches he gave his character, such as when Cleopatra spits in his face and he just grins, wipes his face with his glove and licks the spit off his fingers. And Robson gets a million points for sharing his pasty, flabby man-ass and man-boobies with the world. It takes character to be able to deal with the fact that the mere sight of your bare butt can inspire laughter in an entire auditorium of people.

In fact, I liked Cleopatra best when she was interacting with Tolomeo. In the first act, they were like two spoiled rich brats frolicking around their crappy suite at the Luxor. Inger Dam-Jensen made Cleopatra a less likeable character than most I’ve seen; usually Cleopatra, in spite of her willingless to manipulate and lie to Cesare, is portrayed as perfectly good. Dam-Jensen’s Cleopatra was a schemer like her brother, and was willing to use her body to get what she wanted, not just with Cesare, but with Tolomeo as well. But starting with “V’adoro pupille”, I became bored with Dam-Jensen’s portrayal, and all of Cleopatra’s arias started to run together like so many Donna Anna and Don Ottavio vengeance arias. When Tolomeo and Cleopatra were having their rolling staircase knife-fight, I wanted Michael Bluth from Arrested Development to show up in his stair-car and run Cleopatra over. Dam-Jensen’s singing was also marred by the fact that she apparently took diction lessons from Sean Connery, so all her “s” sounds came out at “sh” (“Sheshto”!). It made her sound uncomfortably like Cher, so when she had on the long, straight black wig with the beaded net cap over it, I almost expected her to start asking Tolomeo if he “believed in life after love.” But I really don’t think she was strong enough, no. The ever-changing wigs and miniskirts and leather pants made me feel like I was watching an episode of Alias in which Sydney Bristow goes undercover in a re-creation of Steve Martin’s “King Tut” sketch.

The staging on the whole was not very annoying and was mostly undisruptive. The Egyptian scenes looked like they took place in an Epyptian-themed hotel, circa 1987, what with the triangular wall sconces and the pale turquoise hieroglyphic painting. The only really questionable prop was the gigantic shark tank with a blue shark suspended in it, but I figured that was some kind of pointless homage to Damian Hirst. The modern setting seemed kind of incongruous in the red-velvet lined jewel box of Det Kongelige Teater, but it was a pleasure to see and hear a Baroque opera performed in a more intimate hall than the huge American barns I’m used to.

The opera orchestra played enthusiastically under Lars Ulrik Mortenssen, though they seem to be a very young orchestra and sometimes appeared to have trouble adjusting when a singer would change their ornamentation a little. Though it was a nice touch of authenticity for the horn players to play valveless period horns for the final scene, the pay-off wasn’t worth the effort, as the horns squeaked a bit as they got higher on the scale.

Sir Edward Coley Burne Jones, the great British artist, once wrote, “Only this is true, that beauty is very beautiful, and softens, and inspires, and rouses, and lifts up, and never fails.” Although the human voice will always be fallible, the word “beauty” could easily be exchanged for the words “Andreas Scholl’s voice”, and the statement would still be 85% true. Perfection is something so rare in our world that there are very few tangible words to describe it; only abstractions seem to fit, and they are mere approximations. So from now on, to describe something that comes within a hairsbreadth of perfection, I will just have to use the adjective “Schollesque”.

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