This is probably the best known of Handel’s fifty or so operas, and, if that were not sufficient recommendation, also Mark Bahnisch’s personal favourite baroque opera.
The opera is a largely fictitious account of Caesar’s adventures in Egypt.
This production dates from 1996, but most of the leads are fairly new additions. Emma Matthews as Cleopatra sings beautifully, even if she is less regal in the role than Yvonne Kenny, as a friend of mine complained.
But it was Tobias Cole in the title role who really made the show for me.
Perhaps any competent singer would sparkle in such a magnificently written part. In an opera replete with glorious arias, Caesar gets more than his share. For a taste of the role, here are all seven minutes of va tacito e nascosto, a sublime duet between the singer and a French Horn.
Sure enough, that’s a beautiful rendition. But you might have noticed that Caesar was none other than… a girl. To be precise, it was alto Sarah Connolly in the 2005 Glyndebourne Opera production.
The part is often sung by a woman because, of course, it was written for a castrato, as were many of Handel’s greatest parts. It was played in the original production by Senesino, one of the two most famous castrati of all time, the other being his contemporary and compatriot Farinelli.
Castrati are hard to find these days, so directors make a tough choice. You can get the most authentic sound by casting a woman. If, on the other hand, in the interests of better theatre you want a hunky bloke in the part, you can refashion it for a baritone. A good example is Walter Berry as Caesar in 1965 (singing the same aria in German).
That’s fine singing too, but the prevailing wisodm is that an alto or countertenor does much greater justice to the music. And if you’d rather have a real bloke than a boyish girl, or any sort of girl, as Cleopatra’s lover, well, that just leaves a countertenor.
There’s nothing girlish about Tobias Cole. He’s as masculine as you’d want a youthful Roman general to be, but it’s actually the youthfulness and energy rather than testosterone per se, that make the performance so mesmerising. This is not just a matter of being exhuberant: it takes a lot of skill and confidence to make such a technically demanding part seem like child’s play.
Cole is pretty new on the scene, it seems. But he’s performed several baroque roles, as well as Oberon in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Twentieth Century work that brought countertenors out of the cathedral choir and into the opera house.
You still hear the odd opera buff pooh-poohing ‘this fad for countertenors’, dismissing the voice as effeminate, unnatural, forced, or what have you. But this appears to be a shrinking minority view. Countertenors are like sushi an acquired taste, well worth acquiring, and definitely here to stay.
In fact there are actually three countertenor roles in this production. More precisely, Christopher Field as Tolomeo is probably a male contralto. This one is a feminised role, by the way an inspired comic creation, blending Caligula with some kind of Mel Brookes Mussolini.
On the question whether the voice is natural, it certainly seems to be for some, at least if you take David Daniels at his word:
It just never happened for me as a tenor: everything above F would split and crack and flip”¦. I sang some Elgar song, and I cracked and I just stopped singing and closed my music and sat down, shaking. I thought, I just can’t do this any more. Now, George [his coach, I suppose] had worked with me a bit trying to bring the high voice down into the tenor range, trying to make it blend, but the voices were totally different. So I brought in some countertenor repertoire, a Semele aria and “Che faro.” At the end, George leaned back and laughed and said, “That’s your voice. Why would you want to sing any other way?”
Anyway, if you’re in Melbourne, go and see one of the four remaining performances: Dec 6,9,12 and 15 at the State Theatre.
The joust between Caesar and a violin in Act II is by itself worth the price of the ticket.