(Photo: Fabrice Sansoni)
In 2005, the Vlaamse Opera premiered the first part of Giorgio Battistelli’s Shakespeare trilogy, “Richard III”, which was widely acclaimed. It has since received a number of productions across Europe, although it had to wait until 2018 to receive its Italian premiere at La Fenice in Venice. OperaWire was on hand for the occasion, and for what was an excellent production, commenting, “Richard III is a dark, compelling and tightly constructed work, supported by a score that seamlessly connects and elevates the drama on stage, with performance. wonderfully shaped by Richard III himself, who dominates the work.
Battistelli has now completed “Julius Caesar”, the second part of the trilogy. On this occasion, however, the Italian audience did not have to wait 13 years to see a performance, as he was chosen to open the 2021-22 season of Opera Roma, thus becoming the first world premiere to open the season. of the company from “La Maschera” in Mascagni. in 1901.
The production also marks Daniele Gatti’s last production as Music Director of Opera Roma.
Accessibility at all levels
The libretto was written in English by Ian Burton, who condensed and modernized Shakespeare’s text but without deviating too much from the original script. The assassination of Caesar is always the turning point of the drama, and big scenes, such as Anthony’s funeral oration, are all included. Where the libretto deviates from the original is in its treatment of the ghost of Caesar, who is directly involved in the revenge of his assassins, and appears throughout the final act, prompting them to be commit suicide. It turned out to be a dramatically healthy move that worked well in maintaining the dramatic momentum and amplified Caesar’s powerful reputation as a man of action, even to the point of continuing his fight after death. Additionally, it also ensured that the character of Julius Caesar remains at the center of the opera from start to finish.
Battistelli created a complex, yet easily accessible, score, using an orchestra with an enlarged percussion section that flowed into boxes on either side of the auditorium. He used it successfully to set the mood for each scene, which for the most part was volatile or threatening in nature. Whether by design or by mistake on the part of the composer, it was less effective in supporting and promoting the detail of the drama.
Often times the music rumbled, almost in the background, before suddenly exploding loudly, the brass taking a leading role. Rhythms were employed to disrupt and create a sense of foreboding, which was most dramatically displayed in the opening of Act One, Scene Five, where heavy, thumping rhythms alerted the audience to Caesar’s upcoming assassination . It was also a very complex composition, even in the passages where the orchestra seemed to be behind. Battistelli’s treatment of details was fascinating and his nuances of texture wonderfully woven.
Daniele Gatti produced an intense and detailed performance of the Orchester del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, which turned out to be an extremely pleasant and interesting experience for the listener.
Steering below Carsen’s normal
Robert Carsen, who was responsible for the excellent staging of “Richard III”, was again commissioned to direct “Julius Caesar”. The quality of Carsen’s productions is such that expectations are always very high, and in this case it worked against him. While this was an acceptable staging in which the characters were clearly defined and the drama clearly focused, it never reached the heights of “Richard III”, nor of a production as recent as ” Osud “from Janáček in Brno or” Il Ritorno d ‘from Monteverdi. Ulisse in Patria ”in Florence. Normally Carsen is able to inject that extra something into a production that challenges audiences and fires the imagination, but not on this occasion. There was also a tendency for Carsen to rely on obvious theatrical devices and unimaginative scenographies. If that was the name of another director attached to this production, then chances are the impression would have been less disappointing.
Anyway, the idea of the staging was well thought out. Carsen moved the stage to today’s Italy, successfully reflecting the fact that other than openly murdering people on the Senate floor, the art of politics hasn’t really changed. . It is still an arena in which ambitious personalities, full of pride, compete for power, in which they manipulate, cajole, threaten and destroy each other by paying lip service to the concerns of the population. Of course, the fact that honest politicians exist, and that many others operate under a variety of illusions, adds a veneer of respectability and opens up the space for political theater to be played.
The sets, designed by Radu Boruzescu, ranged between the fairly mundane and the impressive, in which the Senate scene was most effective, with its raked bleachers of red seats and desks providing an excellent backdrop for the murder of Caesar. Likewise, the wooden scaffolding that dominated the final scenes, in which a gray haze swirled across the stage, created the perfect post-battle atmosphere for Caesar’s ghost to pursue his assassins.
Costume designer Luis F. Carvalho had senators dressed in dark suits, typical of the bureaucrats, administrators and managers who inhabit today’s centers of power, while the population dressed in the usual casual clothes of the 21st century, jeans, sneakers and t-shirts, which have managed to create a wedge between the helpless, who can do little more than protest, and the powerful who compete for the top places. On the negative side, however, the omnipresent dark visual colors of the costumes reinforced the dark vocal textures of the score, and while this can often be found in the staging of tragedies, the lack of contrast has occasionally tarnished the presentation.
A strong cast of singers and actors
The cast is quite large, with a number of extended solo roles for the male voice. Apart from the members of the choir, the work has only one female role, that of the wife of César Calpurnia, reflecting the political world of ancient Rome and, to a lesser extent, that of present-day Italy. It’s also work that has been heavily weighted towards darker textures. Declamatory song was used almost exclusively throughout, as the text evolved between reflective exchanges and monologues, which never fully morphed into what one might call an aria, despite Octavius’ brief contribution. In the final scene. It was therefore essential for the singers to produce strong acting and vocal performances with attention to their characterization and the dramatic context of the drama if the opera was to come to life.
They did not disappoint, even the minor roles being heavily interpreted.
Bass Clive Bayley produced an excellent performance as Julius Caesar, in which he captured his vanity, courage and heroic demeanor. Her singing was detailed, clearly articulate and expressive. And despite a small weakness in the upper register, the voice presented a rich and pleasant timbre. His transition from a living, breathing Caesar to a ghost was expertly accomplished; significantly different from each other, but retaining the same underlying character.
Baritone Elliot Madore managed to bring out the conflict at the heart of Brutus’ character, in which his love for Rome triumphed over his love for Caesar. Although he sometimes struggled to be heard during the loudest passages of the music, he produced a solid singing and acting performance in which his character’s dignity and courage was clearly evident.
The role of Antony provided baritone Dominic Sedgwick with many opportunities to showcase his performing skills. He not only ends the first act with the soliloquy “Forgive me, bleeding piece of land”, but he also had one of Shakespeare’s most famous monologues “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” To perform. His accomplished presentation of both pieces, as well as his overall interpretation, were finely crafted, in which his appealing timbre, cleverly crafted phrasing, vocal clarity and versatility impressed.
Contralto Ruxandra Donose in the Calpurnia part displayed an impressive degree of vocal agility with her well-crafted and emotionally intense phrasing, as she pushed her voice to its limits, skillfully emphasizing her anxiety that at times bordered on to hysteria.
The Cassius Manipulator was tried out by tenor Julian Hubbard, who delivered an energetic, precise and vocally expressive performance in which he displayed agility and a strong and attractive upper register.
Tenor Michael J. Scott as Casca, who doubts Caesar’s motives, believing him to have his eyes on the crown, pleaded convincingly with a passionate and strong argument, showing skill in accentuating the vocal line , while imbuing his voice with conviction.
Tenor Hugo Hymas as servant to Brutus Lucius produced a carefully tried performance in which he showed off his appealing voice in a lyrical presentation.
In the relatively small part of Octavius, Alexander Sprague made a strong impression. He possesses an attractive tenor, which he used with authority to express his ambitions and assert his ruthlessness in the last words of the opera.
All minor parts were performed successfully, with tenors Christopher Lemmings and Christopher Gillett, and baritones Allen Boxer and Alessio Verna performed nine minor roles between them. However, it was bass Scott Wilde who managed to grab attention with his clear articulation and warm timbre in the roles of Decius and III Plebo.
The chorus has been put to good use and has been particularly successful in highlighting the ease with which the population can be manipulated by politicians. Under the direction of choir director Roberto Gabbiani, the Coro del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, singing in English and Latin, added welcome color to the soloists’ predominantly dark voices, while heightening the drama at crucial moments. At other times, it was used to enhance the mood, such as in the opening scene in which its backstage whisper created an eerie and unsettling atmosphere. Her singing was of great quality throughout.
Overall, “Julius Caesar” turned out to be a dramatic and musically interesting work. However, it was not on the same level as Battistelli’s “Richard III”. Carsen’s fairly mundane staging combined with a cast overwhelmingly dominated by male voices created a homogeneity of visual and vocal coloring that worked against the exploitation of the contrasts inherent in the work and softened the dramatic impact. global opera. This was not a fatal flaw, however, and the opera has much to recommend, and with a more imaginative staging, it may prove to be the equal of “Richard III”.
The third installment of the trilogy will be Shakespeare’s comedy “Pericles”.