Magazine article The Spectator

Slaughter of a Masterpiece

Magazine article The Spectator

Slaughter of a Masterpiece

Article excerpt


Slaughter of a masterpiece

Giulio Cesare


I read an interview last week with David McVicar, director of Glyndebourne's new production of Handel's Giulio Cesare, in which he stated that he is 'very intense'. For the span of this production, he seems to have been seized by a 'very intense' fit of the giggles, which has led him to a quite hateful betrayal, of the most comprehensive kind, and with no avenue left unexplored, of this great opera. McVicar, who has shown himself intermittently to be a producer of genius, on this occasion has exercised his talent for gauging exactly what his audience wants, and giving it to them with compound interest. I have never known a Glyndebourne audience, or for that matter any other, erupt with such ferocious applause, on their feet during the closing bars, positively screaming their enthusiasm for the camp slaughter of a masterpiece.

Handel's operas at their finest manifest a shrewd and unillusioned awareness of the complexities of human nature, and though he has heroes and villains, indeed is eager to celebrate heroism and expose perfidy, his maturest creations show that he is as amused by pretension and self-importance as he is pained by weakness and venality. Nor does he think that people who perform heroic actions in one area are exempt from serious failings in other areas. Given the rigid conventions in which his operas are encased, the freedom with which, at their greatest, they portray human nature in its complexity and contradictions makes them one of the glories of the Augustan age. And among these masterly creations none is more secure in its place than Giulio Cesare.

A good thing, too, for otherwise a production such as McVicar's could be a torpedo. He has decided that the work is primarily a vehicle for well-practised comic routines, with the odd bit of heavy relief to ensure that three and a half hours of gags don't become wearisome. The piece, with sets by Robert Jones, is presented in the form of a chronologically telescoped panorama of imperialism. The simple and pleasant basic set, a series of columns with undulating waves in the background, serves neutrally for colonial antics, while we see, as act follows act, galleons at the start, warships and airships later on, and a pleasure cruiser. Costumes, by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, are mainly of the late 19th century. The Romans are more or less modelled on Dr Livingstone, and some of the action is filmed using a primitive movie camera. Alternating with these austere scenes are the bordello furnishings which surround Cleopatra. So far so conventional, though it would be a big mistake to think that this framework constitutes any kind of serious investigation of foreign occupation. …

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