In recent years, Baroque opera performances in Europe have often been “sexed up” with virtuosic and sometimes over-the-top ornamentation, fast tempi and extravagant continuo playing (with a lot more instruments than would have been the norm in Handel’s days). And I plead guilty to enjoying such performances. But conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini was clearly having none of that in his reading of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto in Tokyo. 

Daichi Fujiki (Tolomeo) and Marianne Beate Kielland (Giulio Cesare)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

This was a production at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, that was supposed to have happened in April 2020, but was cancelled mid-rehearsal due to the emerging pandemic. Happily, NNTT’s artistic director Kazushi Ono promised to restage it and, two and a half years later, most of the cast and creative team, including Alessandrini, were able to regather in Tokyo. It’s also the first time Handel’s opera has been produced on the Main Stage of the NNTT (there have been some smaller-scale performances in the pit theatre). It forms part of NNTT’s ongoing Baroque opera series which started with Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (directed by Saburo Teshigawara) in May. 

Visually the production is full of delights and fun. It is new here, but is in fact a revival of Laurent Pelly’s production which he created for Natalie Dessay and others at the Opéra national de Paris over ten years ago. The whole opera is set in the storeroom of a museum of antiquities in Egypt, where the museum workers (played excellently by an ensemble of actors) are busy bringing out or putting away statues and other artefacts. Amidst this, the characters suddenly come alive and create havoc. It’s a clever setting, since Caesar and Cleopatra can appear in period-style costume without having to recreate Egypt on stage, and the various museum artefacts can be used as pointers to the historical setting of the opera. For example, Cleopatra makes a sexy entrance singing “Non disperar” riding on a huge torso of a pharaoh, and a huge head in marble is used to represent the severed head of Pompeo which is presented to Caesar by Tolomeo.

Mari Moriya (Cleopatra) and Daichi Fujiki (Tolomeo)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

The role of Cesare was taken by Marianne Beate Kielland, a Norwegian mezzo and Baroque specialist. The only new face in the cast, she is an elegant and nuanced singer, and the clarity of her diction and the precision of her coloratura passages impressed. However, the voice is lightweight and her singing in the mid to lower register were sometimes overpowered by the orchestra (especially when she had to sing from upstage), therefore she wasn’t quite able to project the heroic side of Caesar, such as in “Va tacito”. Cleopatra was sung by Mari Moriya, a Japanese soprano who started out as a lyric but is now singing more dramatic coloratura repertoire. She displayed a wide expressive range from the agility and brilliance in “Da tempeste” to emotional soul searching in “Piangerò”. Tolomeo, dressed in exotic colours, was sung by Daichi Fujiki, a suave countertenor in his role debut. He began somewhat cautiously, but had warmed up by his second act aria “Sì, spietata”, which had plenty of flair, although not much menace.

Marianne Beate Kielland (Giulio Cesare)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

Mezzos Etsuko Kanoh (Cornelia) and Mika Kaneko (Sesto) were affecting as mother and son, though the latter seemed a little uneasy with the coloratura. As Nireno, Cleopatra’s confidant, Toshiyuki Muramatsu charmed the audience with his comic acting, and got his moment of fame in the Act 2 aria “Chi perde un momento”, which Handel added for a revival in 1730. The roles of Achilla and Curio were also ably sung.

In the pit, Alessandrini conducted the modern forces of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, reinforced with a continuo section formed of Baroque specialists: cello, harpsichord and two theorbos (was it really necessary for Alessandrini to cue his players in the secco recitatives?). He conducted with steady tempi and authority, and the orchestra responded to the conductor’s detailed articulation and phrasing with lively playing. The horn solo was excellent in “Va tacito”.

Etsuko Kanoh (Cornelia) and Mika Kaneko (Sesto)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

However, what I missed in this performance was the musical drive and the vocal flamboyance that I have come to expect in Handel’s operas. It’s clear Alessandrini takes this music very seriously and nothing was out of place – he brought the score to life through a scholarly and precise approach (there were a few cuts here and there but there were 3.5 hours of music), and I did enjoy the sincere and detailed music-making overall. I assume Alessandrini doesn’t want to make Handel into mere entertainment and I can understand that. But the problem with this production was that none of the singers gripped me throughout with the combination of technical virtuosity, power and beauty of tone, although there were some attractive moments. Especially in a large theatre like the NNTT, the production needed consistently more vocal flamboyance and dare I say it, more sexiness.