Giulio Cesare, the most popular of Handel’s operas, is named after the great Roman emperor, but its most memorable character is Cleopatra. In this production by Laurent Pelly from Paris’ splendid Palais Garnier, the role of the Egyptian queen is assumed for the first time by Natalie Dessay, described by the Telegraph as “a supreme vocal enchantress”.
Giulio Cesare is the opera that, over the quarter century, has led the vigorous revival of interest in Handel’s works for the stage. Now in the repertoire of theatres around the world, it offers a dazzling array of dramatic situations and moods – with music to match – and the seductive and captivating character of Cleopatra exemplifies its (to quote Shakespeare) “infinite variety”.
Natalie Dessay chose to make her stage debut in the role of the Egyptian queen at Paris’s Palais Garnier, an opera house of legendary splendour and beauty and, seating an audience of less than 2,000, well suited to the intimacy of baroque opera. Dessay had already recorded all the character’s arias for Virgin Classics with conductor Emanuelle Haïm (catalogue number 5099990787225), who was also in charge of the performances at the Palais Garnier in early 2011. “Every note is as clear and lustrous as a freshly polished crystal chandelier,” said the Toronto Star of the soprano’s recorded performance, while the Telegraph (UK) enthused that “Dessay proves a supreme vocal enchantress”.
She proved a svelte physical enchantress, too, in the staging by Laurent Pelly – who, notably, directed Dessay in the sparkling production of Donizetti’s La Fille de régiment that was seen in London, New York and Vienna and released on DVD by Virgin Classics (catalogue No. 5099951900298). His witty and stylised conception of Handel’s opera was described thus by the Wall Street Journal: “The curtain opens on the vast storeroom of an Egyptian museum, stuffed to the rafters with statuary and paintings, crates and frames. As a guard reads his newspaper, a statue of Julius Caesar comes alive – plaster gray from top to toe, including his Roman soldier's garb. Caesar bursts into song, and sculpted heads and busts aligned on storage shelves follow suit, singing along in chorus. We're off into the wacky world of director Laurent Pelly's new production of Handel's 1724 Giulio Cesare at the Paris Opéra ... there is never a dull moment.” The newspaper went on to praise the excellence of the cast: “not just the stellar Ms. Dessay but also counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo as Caesar, mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan as Cornelia and especially mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Sesto”.
In The Sunday Times (UK), Hugh Canning, an enthusiast for Handel’s operas, wrote that: “At the end of Act II, Cleopatra has one of Handel's most sublime arias, the great G minor lament ‘Se pietà di me non senti’, and Dessay sang it as well as I have ever heard in the theatre. She is an artist who understands the synergy of notes and text.”