Giulio Cesare, an opera populated with manipulative characters that only interact with each other when shared interests are at stake, is a receptive vessel for a scornful indictment of imperialism and the dubious alliances it forges. With recourse to the obvious present-day target it is perhaps also a concept already fully mined by Peter Sellars, who in the late 1980s presented Caesar as a high-handed U.S. president out to further American interests in the Middle East, and revisited themes of Western moral hypocrisy in his 1996 Glyndebourne staging of Theodora. This Salzburg production, first seen at the Whitsun festival in May, has been criticized for unimaginatively retreading that ground and is in many ways a weak imitation, down to its kitsch-infused aesthetic and the silly dance moves of its flak-jacketed henchmen. What isn’t derived from Sellars, mainly the work’s baroque theatricality, becomes the lowest farce: when it is time for the colossal irony of Cleopatra clothing herself as Virtue on Mount Parnassus in order to seduce Caesar, Cecilia Bartoli mounts an atomic bomb and like Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove, rides her phallic weapon home in both senses of the word.

Cecilia Bartoli and Andreas Scholl © Hans Jörg Michel
Cecilia Bartoli and Andreas Scholl
© Hans Jörg Michel

But not all is stale amid the plastic crocodiles and comedy clichés. There is something to be said for recasting the title role as a greasy Eurocrat: just as the easily distracted Caesar came to Egypt, saw and was conquered by Cleopatra, the EU has consolidated an enormous amount of power over the last sixty years and yet its leadership remains weak-willed, displaying astounding political impotence when faced with situations that require bold action. But while Europe remains cravenly beholden to Vladimir Putin for gas, stage directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Leiser cynically suggest that intervening in a Libya weakened by instability was an expedient no-brainer for the sake of future oil supplies, and show Caesar’s pursuits in Egypt, in yet more would-be titillating phallic imagery, ultimately to be about the erection of new drilling rigs.

The other characters were not defined so sharply within this scheme: Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s brother, sported cornrows and a menacing swagger but were it not for Christophe Dumaux’s fierce acting his villainy would have been tamely predictable, while Cornelia, wife of deposed leader Pompey, did little more than mope around, showing none of the strength her character steadily acquires. Her son Sesto, destined to be a dithering wallflower in any production, seemed aptly characterized as a schoolboy out of his depth and world’s least convincing suicide bomber. His realization when he slays Tolomeo (and thus avenges his father) that he has become as barbaric as his enemy, done here as a state of catatonic horror followed slightly too quickly by preternatural calm, made a revealing impression. Showing Cleopatra as a changeable figure, never quite what she seems, proved a suitably ambiguous tack for the character and Cecilia Bartoli stole practically every scene she was in.

Musically this performance fell a touch short of the level one might have expected from this cast: Andreas Scholl had his moments, with many meltingly beautiful spun notes including the opening of his ‘Aure, deh, per pietà’, but sounded underpowered for Caesar, not showing any dynamic range between a pale-sounding mf and piercingly loud volume unleashed only twice, while his breathy passagework and tendency to go flat on descending vocal lines became increasingly hard to ignore as the afternoon progressed. As Sesto, Philippe Jaroussky also sounded underwhelming in the first act but eventually showed firmer tone and commanding agility, tearing through revenge aria after revenge aria with untiring vigour. His mother supposedly spurs him on, though Anne Sofie von Otter’s Cornelia did not take on the strength and stature suggested by the libretto and music, her singing remaining passive even if possessed of a fragile refinement. Ruben Drole, visibly wounded by Cornelia’s rebuff, sang a gruff Achilles, and a spot of stunt casting was provided by Jochen Kowalski, who brought matronly bearing and clean sound to the part of Nireno, Cleopatra’s servant. The countertenor highlight in an opera full of them was however Christophe Dumaux, who sang Tolomeo with hot-blooded malignity and relished the text without sounding unduly theatrical. Cecilia Bartoli may not have produced the most open sound throughout this uncut performance, which ran to five hours and featured all eight of Cleopatra’s arias, but a fully rounded and complex character was to be found in her singing, which ranged from serenely enchanting in ‘V’adoro pupille’ to heart-rending in ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’, where trussed up as if for extraordinary rendition, she quite literally sang and acted her way out of a paper bag.

The Milanese ensemble Il Giardino Armonico were at the less spirited end of the period ensemble spectrum and the lack of vibrato dulled their sound somewhat even with gut strings, but they played with polish and a solid grasp of Handelian operatic style. There were a number of quibbles, like the business-like violin phrasing in ‘Aure, deh, per pietà’, but the natural horns negotiated the challenges of Caesar’s aria ‘Va tacito’ with improbable accuracy and finesse. Conductor Giovanni Antonini rushed through much of the opera at a breakneck speed though the slower numbers were thankfully taken at a statelier pace.