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Giulio Cesare

by on 26 February 2023

Coming and Conquering

Giulio Cesare

by George Frederick Handel, libretto by Nicola Haym

English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire until 25th February, then on nation tour until 25th May

Review by Patrick Shorrock

This staging of one of Handel’s finest operas was a musical triumph for English Touring Opera in partnership with The Old Street Band.  Lovers of Handel’s operas should definitely seek it out.  It depicts how Julius Caesar’s plans to subjugate Egypt  – where Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy are fighting over which one of them should take the throne – are violently disrupted by erotic attraction between Cleopatra and Caesar,  even if there is a feeling that the political outcome was inevitable anyway and the disruption is only temporary.  That erotic disruption is brought to life in a range of some of the most musically intense arias Handel ever wrote, which are superbly delivered here. 

Director James Conway in a wonderfully tendentious programme note shows he is well aware of what he calls “the many disadvantages of togas and orientalism” when it comes to putting on operas from the time of Ancient Rome.   His solution of turning Egypt into Louis XV’s France is imaginative and almost successful.  The Roman prejudices against the Barbarian Egyptians – as  treacherous, pleasure-loving, unscrupulous, unfairly glamorous , and in need of discipline and civilisation (aka economic exploitation)  – are projected onto what looks like a version of Versailles in a way that defuses their political incorrectness.  Having everyone wearing the costumes of Handel’s own period works pretty well once you overlook the fact that Britain didn’t actually take over France and install its own satellite monarch.  Instead of being treated to a vision of Virtue surrounded by the Muses, this protestant Caesar is presented with a vision of Cleopatra as the Virgin Mary, who starts becoming increasingly flirtatious: clever, naughty, but actually rather embarrassing on stage.  That said, Conway’s touch is otherwise pretty secure – light, aware of the humour in the piece, but with just the right amount of stage business to support rather than distract from the arias.  The way Caesar and Ptolemy compete during Va Tacito by means of aggressive body language is hilarious without spoiling the mood.  It would all have been a lot easier with a couple of extras to play palace guards but Conway manages to make the action convincing even without them. 

The arch surtitles  – “ in which the heroine expresses her wish to die” and that sort of thing –  fail to give the verbal content of the arias while summarising the general sentiment, and are a bit annoying, but very 18th Century in tone.  Cordelia Chisholm’s ingenious and flexible designs are clearly designed for touring but never outstay their welcome. 

Conway certainly has some highly talented singers to direct.  Susanna Hurrell’s Cleopatra, despite being shorn of a couple of arias, is highly captivating and well equal to the huge demands of this part.  Her coloratura is the equal of many a more famous singer and her tone stays sweet, which is more than many manage.  She could perhaps be a dash more flirtatious, but, in many ways, less is more here.  Francis Gush’s Caesar is a hugely talented counter tenor, even if he gives the impression of still finding his way a bit on stage.  He lacks some of the swagger that the part needs – and may not quite be old enough for it, but he delivers the goods vocally, even, if in his first aria he seems intimidated by his coloratura rather than brandishing it like a weapon.  This is still pretty impressive in a role that is the opera seria equivalent of Tristan or Otello.  All he needs is experience, which he is now getting. 

Alexander Chance (son of Michael) is possibly an even more talented singer.  Ptolemy is a much easier role vocally but he provides the best diction of the night and doesn’t only sing with accomplishment and musicality but uses the music to make a dramatic point.  I look forward to him ascending the peaks of this repertoire.  Carolyn Dobbin makes excellent use of dark vocal colour as the brutally widowed Cornelia and Margo Arsane is a very convincing adolescent boy as her son Sesto who has to grow up too fast as he is called on to avenge the death of his father. 

Sergey Rybin sets a pace that is neither too deliberate nor over-driven and has an impressive set of musicians to direct in The Old Street Band, who are also supporting ETO in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims – very much worth hearing if you like to hear opera on period instruments.  I was amused to see that Jonathan Peter Kenny is credited with the vocal ornamentation rather than the singers, but it is both lavish and appropriate (there’s nothing quite so disappointing as measly da capo decorations)  which suggests he has done his job well, along with everyone else in this production. 

Patrick Shorrock, February 2023

Photography by Richard Hubert Smith

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