I am usually happy when worthwhile operas are revived or exhumed but in two recent instances the pleasure has been strongly mitigated by the current plague of misconceived productions. It was certainly meritorious on the part of Marcelo Lombardero, the Teatro Argentino´s Artistic Director, to programme for the first time a Händel opera; but it was a fatal mistake to put it into the hands of the team led by Gustavo Tambascio. And Buenos Aires Lírica had the good idea to include in their season Donizetti´s "Belisario", but unfortunately both the production and the casting had grave flaws.
"Giulio Cesare" is the only Händel opera that has had multiple stagings in our country. It was premiered in 1959 by the Asociación de Conciertos de Cámara. Then there was the great production by Ernst Pöttgen in 1968 at the Colón conducted by Karl Richter and with such first-class singers as Sills, Treigle, Crass, Forrester and Schreier . And finally a rather poor historicist version about ten years ago at the Margarita Xirgú.
Bärenreiter has edited the piano reduction calling it "Giulio Cesare in Egitto", and it was thus called at the Argentino. The recordings I know and all the previous versions I saw call it plainly "Giulio Cesare". The libretto by Nicola Francesco Haim indeed happens in Egypt; it is based on another libretto written by Giacomo Francesco Bussani for an opera by Antonio Sartorio. It is a typical "opera seria" involving a mix of political and Romantic factors, the other characters being Cleopatra, Tolomeo, Cornelia (widow of Pompeo) and Sesto (son of Pompeo), Achillas (an Egyptian general of Tolomeo), Nireno (confidant of Cleopatra) and Curio (a Roman tribune). It has the defect of all "opera serias", an almost unbroken succession of recitative and aria da capo (ABA´), only relieved by two duets, perfunctory choirs and some instrumental bits. But what inspired music almost throughout!
Facundo Agudín, an Argentine living in Europe, has studied at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. As he worked with the Orquesta Estable del Argentino, his approach could only be partially historicist and it showed in the lack of bite and strong attack of the strings. But there were some efforts in that direction: a continuo made up of harpsichord, cello, theorbo and harp sounded very well in the recitatives; and although there were notorious mistakes, the horn obbligato in Giulio Cesare´s "Va tacito e nascosto" was played in a natural instrument. Tempi were correct and da capos were ornamented.
The best singers were Adriana Mastrangelo as an intense Sesto, the Spanish countertenor Flavio Oliver (debut) as Tolomeo (a castrato role) and Paula Almerares as an accurate Cleopatra (though not quite as radiant as the best exponents of this part). Cecilia Díaz as Cornelia was too chesty in her tones for the Baroque style but expressive; Sebastián Sorarrain seemed not quite comfortable as Achillas, though professional. I have no empathy with Nidia Palacios´ dry timbre and mechanical florid singing as Giulio Cesare (another castrato part). Damián Ramírez (countertenor) did well as Nireno and Mariano Fernández Bustinza was a dramatic Curio .
Gustavo Tambascio as producer condemns himself with these declarations: "The second Act starts in an interior that could be the house of Zully Moreno or Argentina Sono Film. Another segment of that Act is placed at the Recoleta cemetery, the most Baroque spot in Argentina". His outlandish idea is to make Cleopatra an Evita placing her suffrage for feminine voting from her ill bed. Tolomeo is a drag queen, there´s an orgy that amounts to soft porn, the costumes of Giulio Cesare and Achillas seem parodies to make generals the object of ridicule, and a big etcetera. For me he and his team ruined this premiere, although I have to acknowledge that the workshops of the Argentino showed their great capacity. For the record, stage designs were by Daniel Blanco, costumes by Jesús Ruiz, choreography by Yolanda Granado (the least offensive factor).
I´ll be brief about "Belisario", the sad story of the downfall of the great Byzantine warrior. The libretto by Salvatore Cammarano is very poor. We owe to the redoubtable baritone Renato Bruson the Colón exhumation of 1981. Although it takes some time to find the level of the best Donizetti, there are lovely moments in the Second and Third Acts, and I certainly enjoyed hearing such beautiful bel canto music. But I have to admit that the cast did little to make the experience a full one. Omar Carrión was the best, but even he didn´t project enough involvement. A Chilean import proved a disappointment: María Luz Martínez certainly doesn´t have the means to sing the tough role of Antonina, Belisario´s estranged wife. Christian Peregrino as the Emperor Giustiniano was vibrato-ridden. Santiago Bürgi replaced Sergio Spina as Alamiro, and although he is too lyrical for the part, he did acceptably. Vanina Guilledo was colorless as Irene, Belisario´s daughter. The other four singers, in the picture.
I liked the straightforward conducting of Javier Logioia Orbe and the Choir under Juan Casasbellas sang with fortitude and fine intonation. Casasbellas had the added merit of reconstructing the orchestral score, which had disappeared when Venice´s La Fenice burned down, and the result was quite Donizettian. Marcelo Perusso tried to give a Byzantine ambience (he was producer, stage and costume designer) but I´m afraid the result was kitschy and unconvincing.
For Buenos Aires Herald