“Music paints moods and helps the singers color the words”

Contranor Christophe Dumaux sings the role of Giulio Cesare and soprano Julie Fuchs the role of Cleopatra in ‘Giulio Cesare’ by Emmanuelle Haïm.Sculpture Milagro Elstak

‘The name Julius Cæsar appeals to the public much more than, for example, a title which Partenope. This is partly why opera houses like to program this opera by Handel.’ The French conductor and baroque specialist Emmanuelle Haïm (60), who is in Amsterdam for the new production of Julio Cesare of the Dutch National Opera, understands why this work is so successful and loved. She explains it in the sunny foyer with an afternoon of practice ahead.

The titular hero’s fame may lure the audience to the opera house, but if all goes well, they end up falling for Georg Friedrich Handel’s enchanting tones.

Handel composed several masterpieces, but in 1724 he wrote three in succession: Julio Cesare, Tamerlane and RodelindaHaim says. ‘Julio Cesare is undoubtedly Trade of the highest order. The opera has an excellent libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, which brought out Handel’s considerable theatrical talent. That’s what you need for a successful opera: a good plot with dramatic twists. Handel composed fantastic arias for this.’

Conductor Emmanuelle Haïm leads a rehearsal for 'Giulio Cesare' at the Dutch National Opera.  Sculpture Milagro Elstak

Conductor Emmanuelle Haïm leads a rehearsal for ‘Giulio Cesare’ at the Dutch National Opera.Sculpture Milagro Elstak

The librettist had to invent almost nothing, just compress a series of dramatic historical events into a short period of time. The action abounds with political intrigue and attempted seduction and murder, whether successful or not.

We write the year 48 BC. In Rome, the first triumvirate, an alliance between Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, has ended with the death of the latter. A power struggle ensues between Caesar and Pompey, who flees to Egypt. Civil war also rages there because both Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra want the Egyptian throne for themselves. Cleopatra wins with Caesar’s help after he falls head over heels for her.

Different visions

Haïm already has three different productions of Julio Cesare completed and knows the piece inside out. This staging is her first collaboration with director Calixto Bieito, who signed a contract with the Dutch National Opera in 2021 to direct Rudi Stephan’s rarely performed opera. The first people. From ancient Alexandria, Bieito moves the story to Saudi Arabia’s ostentatious pavilion at the 2020 Dubai World Expo.

Rehearsal of 'Giulio Cesare'.  Sculpture Milagro Elstak

Rehearsal of ‘Giulio Cesare’.Sculpture Milagro Elstak

‘It is fascinating to see a different vision of this work each time. Bieito’s approach is to start from the energy of the singers and the music. His interpretation is contemporary and revolves around money being the real power these days. With money, you can create a super-luxurious world somewhere in the desert, even if it doesn’t belong there and looks completely absurd. You only do it because you have enough money for it.’

Political animals

All the characters in the opera are involved in a dangerous power game, which no one plays as cleverly as Giulio Cesare and Cleopatra, sung by countertenor Christophe Dumaux and soprano Julie Fuchs respectively. ‘To sing the title role you need both virtuosity and charm. Christophe has it. And Julie is the perfect singer for the very nuanced role of Cleopatra,’ says Haïm.

Cleopatra’s political weapon is her attractiveness. ‘She literally sings that in the first act,’ notes Haïm. “A beautiful woman can have everything.”

But what does that say about her love music that we hear later? Are her feelings for Caesar fake? ‘No, I wouldn’t say that. You can never clearly separate her political motives from her romantic feelings. But they are all political animals’. When Caesar first sees her, she is disguised as a servant. “But he knows it’s Cleopatra! He’s just playing along”.

Sophisticated orchestral colors

Haïm’s face lights up as she explains how brilliantly Handel expresses all the different emotions.

“The music is so beautiful. Take the moment when Caesar learns that his rival Pompey has been killed. We read in About the lives of the emperors by Suetonius – and he probably romanticized it a little – that Caesar was really hard hit by this news. He reflects on the fragility of life, and Handel’s music is deeply moving. Like all the music of Cornelia, Pompey’s grieving widow.

Rehearsal of 'Giulio Cesare'.  Sculpture Milagro Elstak

Rehearsal of ‘Giulio Cesare’.Sculpture Milagro Elstak

‘The lighter arias are also fantastic. When, at their first meeting, Caesar tells Cleopatra that nothing is more beautiful than her face, refined orchestral colors sound. The music paints the different moods and helps the singers color the words. Trading is never about one feeling. So not just despair, for example, but despair mixed with a little hope. This is what we do during rehearsals. Our singers are good actors who can convey subtle emotions.’

Line up

At the time of this conversation, the baroque orchestra Le Concert d’Astrée, founded by Haïm himself in 2000, is not yet in the country, but she already knows more or less what the event will look like. Haïm is also a harpsichordist (in Amsterdam she played the harpsichord in the acclaimed Monteverdi triptych by director Pierre Audi) and Julio Cesare will lead them from behind the harpsichord. The composer would have done that – Haïm and her ensemble strive for an authentic performance practice.

“Whether it’s possible always depends on the size of the theater and the stage, and whether, for example, you can raise the orchestra pit, because if the singers are too far away, they can’t see me.

‘Baroque music needs the direct contact between the musicians and the singers, otherwise conventions from the Romantic period can creep in unconsciously. In certain arias, the singers are accompanied only by a lute and a cello. It would then be ridiculous to conduct. You have to let them have their way’.

Julio Cesare. Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, 16/1 to 5/2.

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