Staging an opera is a big challenge for any company, and choosing the lengthy historical drama Giulio Cesare is a particularly bold move for a touring opera company. The English Touring Opera (ETO) is nothing if not bold, but even Director James Conway refers to the two-part staging of Giulio Cesare as an experiment. As a single unabbreviated work it would require an audience to be in their seats for about four hours, a big ask in these days of instant gratification. The ETO solution is not to shorten the work, as some have, but to stage it in two parts on successive nights with a reasonably large overlap of six complete scenes from Act 2.
A challenge for me is the music of Handel – it is very good but I am not fully familiar with the musical styles and conventions of three hundred years back, when this opera was first performed. The orchestra, rather charmingly referred to in the programme as ‘The Old Street Band’ includes instruments beyond my experience such as the Theorbo, which looks like a lute on steroids. The vocal balance of the opera is unusual too, with only one bass baritone and one baritone, but three male counter-tenors and a young man played by a female Mezzo-Soprano. The tones may be high, but the superlative cast of this work have no problem filling the Theatre Royal auditorium. The cast of eight tell a complex tale of power politics, love, lust and death in ancient Egypt and develop complex and believable characters as the story unfolds.
This is not a work for the faint hearted or prudish. There is murder, warfare, imprisonment and torture on stage, as well as a fair amount of flirting and romance. One crucial character, Ptolemy, appears only as a severed head. Clearly this is a non-singing part. His murder by Achilla (Benjamin Bevan) is part of a struggle for the Egyptian crown between Cleopatra (Soraya Mafi) and her brother Tolomeo (Benjamin Williamson). Grieving pretty much throughout the whole opera is Ptolemy’s widow Cornelia (Catherine Carby) and her young son Sesto (Kitty Whately). Grief appears to be an aphrodisiac for the two who caused her widowhood, as both Achilla and Tolomeo are determined to bed Cornelia, along with Cesare’s attendant Curio. Her repugnance at this is quite understandable, and leads Sesto to discover his manly duty at a rather younger age than he might have wished as he seeks to avenge his father’s death. Cornelia has a rough time throughout all three acts, being abused physically and emotionally by those who have caused her misery, she would have more reason than most to say ‘me too’.
Pompey was rivalled before his death by Julius Caesar (here in Italian form Giulio Cesare) who has come to claim dominance over Egypt. Giulio Cesare is a demanding role which Christopher Ainslie masters to great effect, whether as the dashing military leader or the lovestruck admirer of Cleopatra. He is aided by Curio, his officer and sidekick played by Frederick Long, while Cleopatra can rely on her cunning counsellor Nireno (Thomas Scott-Cowell). The interplay between Cesare and Cleopatra gives us the tenderest moments and some of the finest music in Handel’s magnificent score.
This is no waxed hair and permatan Burton and Taylor affair. Soraya Mafi gives us a delightful Cleopatra who is clearly a right little minx from the first moment she steps on stage. Her Cleo carries on building a sympathetic but determined character throughout the two evenings as she gets caught out by her own plan to woo Cesare by unexpectedly really falling for him. She has carried out her plan in the subterfuge of pretending to be a commoner called Lidia, but blurts out her true identity when Cesare is suddenly placed under mortal threat (again). Her pure Soprano tone is charming as she gives a precise rendition of the complex Handel score. The overlap arrangement between the two nights gives her more work to do, but a great deal more pleasure for the audience.
Cleopatra initially tries to get her way over brother Tolomeo with some rather incestuous flirting, but when much later the tables are turned and she is imprisoned and beaten by him she loses any last shred of filial solidarity. Tolomeo appears at first rather effeminate, but his capricious and vicious character is thoroughly developed by Benjamin Williamson including many asides to the audience behind the backs of his protagonists. The singing register that Williamson has to achieve could be explained by the fact that the role was first written (along with Cesare and Nireno’s) for the Alto Castrato voice then available to opera composers. In this production these three appear to remain intact, although it was a pretty close thing for Tolomeo once or twice when his sister was being determined. There must also be an answer to the question ‘why did Handel make the male romantic lead an Alto Castrato?’ but it is beyond my knowledge and indeed comprehension.
Director James Conway has created a production set in a large and simple square set which transforms into the many different locations for the various scenes. It has an air of simple golden Egyptian style and opulence while offering two levels, some stairs and several useful lurking spots. Sadly some of the lurking remained unseen to the Norwich audience as sight lines for some did not include the further corners, but this is a minor quibble. The surtitle displays gave an indication of the content of some of the complex Italian arias, but summarised with lines such as ‘In which the King tells of his own achievements by comparison with the rushing torrent of a mountain stream’ or some such. It is possible that the surtitle writers were weaned on a diet of ‘Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy’ the Maoist Chinese opera epic, but I could not be definitive on that point. These displays got a well deserved titter on many occasions, for in spite of the grim and serious subject matter there were many moments of comedy sprinkled throughout the pathos of the plot. The surtitles also help you to suspend your disbelief during a lengthy aria or two imposed on a particularly dramatic moment in this tale of sudden violence and swift turns of fate.
All who attended these two nights left delighted, like members of a secret club after a satisfying session of mutual bonding, but for some an opera like this can seem a daunting prospect. The very clear message from the ETO is don’t be daunted, come and enjoy a magnificent and deeply satisfying theatrical work that has themes as relevant today as three hundred years ago, and characters as engaging (and rather more defined) as any you will find in a modern TV drama. Add to that the breathtaking music from Handel played with skill on contemporary instruments and sung by exemplary singers and you have an unmissable triumph. As I write I am listening to the Alan Curtis directed recording of the opera on Youtube, finding ever more in the arias and recitative. I am getting a handle on Handel now.
The ETO are touring Giulio Cesare with two other works until late November. If you missed the Norwich performance I would recommend travelling to wherever you can to catch this unique production. But if you go, do me a favour and take along with you a young person or three, so we can ensure a future for such fine entertainment. The Director James Conway calls this production an experiment – in this case the hypothesis is thoroughly tested and the facts are clear – it works!
© Julian Swainson 2017