Sunday 12 December 2010

Is Cleopatra funny?

Re-reading the programme notes for Cecilia Bartoli's concert on Wednesday, I did rather find myself disagreeing with the writer (Christopher Cook) on the subject of Handel's Giulio Cesare. He refers to the way that 'Handel and his librettist blend the serious with the comic', going on to refer to Cleopatra as 'playful, funny, teasing and an unscrupulous operator'. I would certainly agree with the second comment, as that is what makes Cleopatra so charming, but I would have to disagree with the first comment, I don't think there is actually anything specifically funny in the libretto. Handel certainly didn't do funny, his lighter operas can have a rather satirical bent, but never outright comedy. Giulio Cesare belongs to the first Academy period, when Handel was doing operas of high seriousness; mainly, it seems likely, because that is what his aristocratic backers on the Academy board wanted. Nowadays, producers rather add a comic element to these operas, both the Glyndebourne Rodelinda and the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare had crowd pleasing comic elements which have no place in the music. So no, I don't think the opera blends serious with comic.

The article then goes on to describe the scene when Cleopatra sings V'adoro, pupille as 'perhaps owes as much to a Soho burlesque at The Windmill as it does to ancient Parnassus'. Really? Obviously I have a far more serious view of the opera than Christopher Cook, but that raises the question of who is right. Because I put Handel's music on something of a pedestal, am I right in attributing motives of high seriousness to the opera productions. Was the original Parnassus scene viewed as being a little risqué? Surely the care which Handel lavished on the orchestration, with the on-stage orchestra of muses specified as having 9 instruments, mitigates against the idea that the scene had a burlesque element.

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