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Night at the Museum

Palais Garnier
01/20/2024 -  & January 23, 25, 27, 30, February 2, 4, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 2024
Georg Friedrich Handel : Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17
Gaëlle Arquez (Giulio Cesare), Lisette Oropesa (Cleopatra), Wiebke Lehmkuhl (Cornelia), Emily d’Angelo (Sesto), Iestyn Davies (Tolomeo), Rémy Brès-Feuillet (Nireno), Luca Pisaroni (Achilla), Adrien Mathonat (Curio)
Chœur Unikanti, Gaël Darchen (chorus master), Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris, Harry Bicket
Laurent Pelly (stage director & costumes), Laurie Feldman (revival director), Chantal Thomas (sets), Joël Adam (lighting)

(© Vincent Pontet/Opéra national de Paris)

In baroque opera, more often than not, the libretto is inferior to the score. Characters rarely develop, though they can stir us by virtue of the music, especially if the dramatic and vocal talents of the singers are compelling. This two-dimensionality is best overcome through ingenious staging rather than a traditional one. The latter may appeal visually but is rarely able to overcome the tedium. Laurent Pelly’s stagings typically vary from the sublime to the grotesque. His recent interpretation of Il Turco in Italia for Madrid’s Teatro Real is the most originally imaginative production of that work I’d ever seen, while his Il barbiere di Siviglia for the Théâtre des Champs‑Elysées in 2017 = was tediously soporific. The only certainty is that his productions never leave us indifferent. This Giulio Cesare is genuinely fresh, somewhat provocative and largely felicitous.

Set in the present, in what appears to be Alexandria’s magnificently charming Greco-Roman Museum, it’s a haunted night in the depths of the museum’s warehouses, where crates of new acquisitions are opened and others put into storage. Most of the staff appear to be Egyptian, in European garb, while some are in different variations of native dress. As a native Egyptian, I have yet to see government employees in local dress worn by peasant folk, but artistic liberties may be taken to augment the visual appeal.

The real grievance was the disturbing Orientalism of this staging. As expected, “orientals” are improperly and interchangeably depicted. As in many productions, elements of India are mixed with those of Morocco to depict yet a third unrelated location. For “orientals”, who extend to much of Asia, the Northern half of Africa and Southeastern Europe, such a hodge‑podge is perplexing. It’s like mixing flamenco dancing and Swiss yodeling to depict Finland, since Spain, Switzerland and Finland are all in a continent called Europe. One would have thought since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Western creative artists would have learned something. In Pelly’s production, the museum employees in native attire are wearing some sort of cap usually worn in Indonesia but rarely seen in Egypt (except at Halloween parties).

More troubling were the outrageous behavioral eccentricities attributed to the natives, from the museum staff eagerly ogling Cleopatra to a gimmick plagiarized from John Copley’s 1984 ENO production of Julius Caesar, where Cleopatra is introduced into Caesar’s chambers wrapped in an oriental rug, unfolded to reveal the seductive Queen. In the older production, she does so at her first encounter with the Roman general, when she pretends to be Lidia, her maid. Here, staging her as a harlot at the opera’s finale, one breast exposed throughout Act III, after gaining Caesar’s confidence, would seem to evoke the orientalist trope: the dangerous oriental woman resorting to her carnal charms.

In Act III, Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and rival for the throne of Egypt, holds captive Cornelia, widow of the Roman general Pompeo he had slain. In Pelly’s setting, the prison cell is an anachronistic rug‑weaving atelier with craftsmen (slaves) assiduously weaving. No oriental rugs were woven in Ptolemaic Egypt, and when it was introduced, centuries later, they certainly did not create ornate Persian carpets. The same prison/atelier serves as an orgy room for Ptolemy, who is enjoying several girls and one terrified boy for good measure. All this confirms the view that “orientals” are gluttonous sex fiends, and that homosexuality (and even pedophilia) are the norm in the Orient.

Despite these many misgivings, there is much to praise in Laurent Pelly’s staging. The idea of the characters of Handel’s opera coming to life in a museum is imaginative and to be commended. The juxtaposition with museum antiquities and present‑day staff performing daily tasks was refreshing. However, it may not be entirely original, as I’ve seen several films with a similar premise, including Night at the Museum (2006), but it does provide an appropriate setting.

Most charming was the mixing of epochs beyond contemporary and Egypt circa 48 BC. Cleopatra’s ladies‑in‑waiting, and at moments the Queen herself appeared in the baroque attire of Handel’s time. Though déjà vu in other productions, notably Robert Carsen’s famed 1993 Antwerp production of Manon Lescaut, several seventeenth to nineteenth century paintings came to life. Cleopatra awaits Caesar in a painting of a Roman villa. When he arrives, Cleopatra jumps out of the frame, conjuring Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), reprised in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), respectively through the mirror and through the silver screen.

In Act II, several iconic paintings of Cleopatra appeared on stage. It was aesthetically feeble and scenically ineffective to juxtapose so many of them. Cleopatra’s exposed bosom is derived from one such 1887 painting, by the symbolist Gustave Moreau (1826‑1898). Of particular charm was Nireno’s perplexed examination of a painting of Handel, possibly the 1726 portrait by Balthasar Denner (1685‑1749).

The key to the success of this Giulio Cesare was its top singers in the leading roles of Caesar, Cleopatra and Cornelia. French mezzo Gaëlle Arquez was a first‑rate Caesar. An excellent actress, she convincingly portrayed the Roman general with a properly virile deportment. Her warm mezzo contrasted well with Cleopatra’s soprano and Cornelia’s contralto. Her Italian diction was probably the best of the cast (other than Luca Pisaroni, of course). She subtly conveyed Caesar’s enchantment with Cleopatra’s beauty in the Act I aria, “Non è vago e bello”. Caesar’s Act II aria, “Va tacito e nascosto,” was also very strong.

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate choice for the role of Cleopatra than the incandescent Lisette Oropesa. A coquette par excellence, she has the vocal and dramatic prowess to embody Ptolemaic Egypt’s last queen. Her glorious lyric coloratura had just the right timbre, feminine and fruity. Vocally, she excelled in all her arias, but her Act II aria “V’adoro pupille” was the most sensual. Technically, her Act III aria “Da tempeste il legno infranto” was the most dazzling.

Pelly’s directions seemed to stress the charm and the feline side of Oropesa’s Cleopatra. His vision appears to be one in which both Cleopatra and her co‑regent brother Ptolemy are spoiled immature children. The result is a coquettish and vocally ravishing Cleopatra with brilliant high notes, but with little regal authority. Given Oropesa’s immense talent, I am sure she’ll eventually rise to the majesty of the role under the guidance of another director. Cleopatra’s initial disguise as her own charming maid “Lidia” was a ruse to seduce Caesar. Unfortunately, the plan seems to have persisted to the opera’s end. There was no change in Cleopatra’s demeanor after she had revealed to Caesar her true identity. She persisted with the same coyness and feline charm. She also danced to the ballabile rhythms of her arias, shaking her behind in a stylized belly dance, demeaning for a queen reputed to have charmed with her intellect and wit, not her posterior.

German contralto Wiebke Lehmkuhl, best known as a Wagnerian and oratorio singer, was a pleasant surprise. Though her diction was not first‑rate, she was a moving Cornelia. Her creamy dark contralto was distinct in an opera where several other roles are sung in a similar register. She was especially moving in her Act I aria, “Priva son d’ogni conforto, e pur speme”. Het Act II aria, “Cessa omai di sospirare!,” was elegantly phrased and convincingly interpreted.

Least impressive in the cast was Canadian mezzo Emily d’Angelo as Sesto. D’Angelo was androgynous enough to convince as the young Roman adolescent, but her timbre was unappealing and at moments she sounded shrill. Moreover, her voice did not blend well with Lehmkuhl in the glorious Act I duet, “Son nata a lagrimar.” In this age of plentiful countertenors, it’s hard to understand the choice of giving this important role to a mezzo. In baroque opera, there is often a dearth of low voices. The leading roles were written for sopranos and castrati, and the many roles written for castrati are now sung by countertenors and mezzos.

Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was a most welcome luxury in the secondary role of Achilla. One wished he had more to sing other than his three short arias, all marvelously interpreted. The Act I “Tu sei il cor di questo core” was brilliantly interpreted. A first‑rate actor, he exuded virile charm and rendered the villainous character somewhat sympathetic.

English countertenor Iestyns Davie looked like a pubescent Tolomeo (Ptolemy). A terrific actor, he adroitly portrayed the young king as a spoiled and easily irritable adolescent. His Act I scene with Cleopatra was deliciously playful. His failed attempts to climb up the colossal statue on which his sister sat was hilarious. He was most appropriately hysterical in his Act I aria “L’empio, sleale, idegno.” Technically, his Act III “Domerò la tua fierezza” was the most outstanding.

It is to be noted that members of the Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Paris were in the pit for the first time performing a baroque opera using authentic instruments. These are musicians who usually play Verdi, Puccini, Berlioz, Wagner and Strauss, who volunteered to essay a different musical style. In the past, other ensembles were invited to play in baroque productions at the Paris Opéra. Congratulations are in order for their versatility, for the results are more than adequate. Harry Bicket did a great job with these novices. The orchestra sounded appropriately light. The tempi were brisk and the ensemble never played loudly, allowing the singers to shine. One hopes these brave musicians will repeat the experience, especially in helping to revive rarely-performed gems of Rameau and Lully.

Ossama el Naggar



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