Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Komische Oper

The first night of Giulio Cesare at the Komische Oper, resulted, unusually but deservedly, in resounding cheers for the production team of director Lydia Steier and designers Katharina Schlipf and Ursula Kudrna. The focus of their staging was Cleopatra as a female, confronting the power of a male world which is cruel and dissolute. Her search for her own identity is marked by images of her childhood marriage to brother Ptolemy and – looking to the future – ugliness and old age. Her struggle is only partially aided by Caesar, a casual, laid-back, but always masculine outsider. And throughout she, and we in the audience, have to transcend the stereotyped image of her, the petulant seductress with the dark-haired fringe, an image with which Ptolemy is also obsessed as his harem is full of Cleopatra look-alikes. Visually stunning in a predominantly 18th century setting, the production had some memorable scenes. Caesar arrives and departs as a military hero. To match him on his own territory as it were, Cleopatra descends from heaven in a golden chariot. But at the end, she slips down from the horse which was to take them away in glory and to marital bliss. Irresolute, she returns to her chamber and to the images of childhood and old age.

The crowning achievement musically was that of baroque specialist Konrad Junghänel in the pit. The brilliance of Handel’s score came across through energy and sharp rhythmic articulation; but there was also constraint in dynamics and tempo, to give emotional depth to the quieter, more searching arias and recitatives. He was well served by Valentina Farcas who, as Cleopatra, met the huge vocal demands with bravura; aptly extrovert in vocal showpieces, but with poignant colouring to communicate the inner self. The other singers were not on this level although Günter Papendell made a sturdy contribution in the small role of Achilla. Problematic was the casting of Dominik Köninger the title role.  We have become used to mezzo sopranos, the music suiting the range and flexibility of their voice, but for Lydia Steier masculinity in the characterisation of Caesar was essential if he was to operate as an appropriate foil to Cleopatra. Baritones have of course sung the part before but when transposed down an octave it does not lie well for them, and generally they lack the agility for the Handelian style. So it was with Köninger who, while dramatically convincing, was ill at ease vocally. This was the small but not trivial musical price that had to be paid for a hugely imaginative production. The Komische Opera as International Opera House of the Year?  Yes, on this showing.