Saturday, 16 November 2019

OPERA REVIEW: Giulio Cesare - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

Upon entering the Lowry Theatre, a stark and impressive set greeted the audience; huge, dark panels lined the stage, reaching up to the heights. These were inscribed with the sign of the ancient Latin Government: SPQR – The Senate and the People of Rome. In the middle of the floor was a huge flat-topped pyramid, again in near black. Stark white lights lit up precise areas of this setting which added to the oppression. This imposing set clearly brought together Rome and Egypt, the classical setting of this play. The Baroque opera was fascinated with ancient history and reflected an attempt to add legitimacy and merit to the art form – music and theatre are clearly rooted in ancient Greece after all. Giulio Cesare focusses on the story of how Cleopatra persuaded Caesar, who was at war with Egypt, to help her cease control of the throne of Egypt from her Brother, Ptolemy XIII. History tells us that Caesar and Cleopatra are romantically involved and indeed Cleopatra has a son to him – Ptolemy Caesar.

There is a simple story here, and even adding in a few more historical elements such as Ptolemy’s assassination of Pompeo and the subsequent plot for revenge kept it all easy to follow. The story flowed very clearly and interest was kept throughout. Director Tim Albery successfully edited the score down to three hours – the original version was four hours in length. As expected in Baroque opera, there are some long arias with scant lyrics – melisma and repeated lyrics with different musical content allow the singer to colour the story with varying emotion. A plain English translation of the Italian text was presented clearly on screens either side of the stage, avoiding a lyrical, flowery translation that might more clearly reflect the original text. Nevertheless, there were extended periods where the lyrics were not displayed at all - repetition of lyrics is quite constant and I would agree that every reiterance of text need not be repeated on screen, but sometimes there were minutes of singing that had no text on screen and I found myself having forgotten what the text being used was. I also suspect that much of the text was simply not included. Getting the balance right between allowing the audience to focus on the stage and not have to look at the screens is a challenge. In this instance, the text displayed allowed the audience to focus more on the action and sound without losing the plot, but I wonder what was missed out.

The Baroque orchestra was impressive here under the direction of Christian Curnyn. While I am not entirely sure if authentic baroque violins and violas were used, the harpsichord, Viola da Gamba (a melodic precursor of the cello) and Theorbo (a complex lute-like instrument with a very long neck) added a welcome baroque feel to the ensemble and coloured the lighter scored sections very well. The balance of the full ensemble and smaller forces allowed contrast to keep the audience engaged. Indeed, Handel’s clever writing brought out some beautiful moments of synchronisation and harmony between instruments and voice providing a unique relationship between both.

As the story unfolded, so to did the set. The dark pyramid became a high platform and then opened up and turned around to reveal a golden interior that was luxurious if stark. The light that reflected from this golden room was rich but cold and gave a strong impression of the riches of the Egyptian kingdom without needing much in the way of props. This was a really effective use of light and set, with hints of early twentieth century modernism which allowed us to be both in the ancient world and some time closer to today. The costumes, on the other hand, were not quite so coherent. Pompeo’s wife – Corenlia, who was performed by Amy J. Payne who took the place of Catherine Hooper who was ill, wore a two piece dogtooth short skirt and jacket which evoked 1950s Italy. Various military uniforms worn by the ensemble seemed to be placed in the mid-century era as well. Caesar wore a long muddy military coat that was more 19th century and both Cleopatra and Ptolomeo wore what looked like pale gold dressing robes which covered shorts and sleeveless vests in purple silk. I found the seemingly eclectic wardrobe to be confusing and in no way added to the opera. Cleopatra, played by Lucie Chartin, although thoroughly regal and seductive throughout, was ill dressed in my opinion and looked quite plain both as queen and as queen’s servant in disguise. It really seemed like they walked in to the wardrobe department of a theatre and went for pot luck. This was a real shame and a let down for Opera North who usually style and set to the smallest of details.

Chartin was an immediately loveable character, which is difficult to portray as the Baroque opera has little subtly and presents its characters quite matter of factly. There is little room for nuance, but our Cleopatra gave us emotion and complexity of character. This is achieved through the combination of vocal and facial expression along with physicality. Chartin was well suited for this. Unforutnately the same was not so for Cesare, performed by Maira Sanner. There was very little discernible facial expression and while the vocal delivery was with strong merit, it was a robotic delivery. The characters around her – some who did not have a single word or line – reacted more to her lines than she did. Again, this was a real shame. I try not to be harsh, but this performance of Caesar was only saved by Sanner’s vocal ability, and even then only just. This, combined with a grubby long coat and pale complexion, changed the infamous military general into a slight, ineffectual character.

Nevertheless, Payne as Cornelia was an absolute gem and it was hard to believe that she was the understudy. There were some really touching moments, perhaps the most emotive of the whole evening, between herself and her son Sesto, played by Heather Lowe, as they mourned the assassination of their husband and Father, Pompeo. This opera is predominantly sung as solo, so the duet section was a welcome change. It is a beautiful song, and was beautifully performed this evening. Sesto grew stronger as the night went on, transforming this youthful character into a young adult.

The Baroque opera stayed away from the high drama that we expect in Romantic Italian opera – the stabbing to death of Pompeo and later on of Ptolomeo was carried out matter of factly. I suspect that Baroque sensibilities did not want the element of dramatic horror added to these violent scenes. It is interesting, today, to witness the most important elements of the narrative unfold with little dramatic attention. Opera North kept these deaths understated yet still effective – evil Ptolomeo’s corpse was hung upside down from the pyramid for all to see, an echo perhaps of what happened to Mussolini. This certainly added an element of disturbing drama which would not have been seen in the early 18th century.

Countertenors James Laing and Paul-Antoine Benos-Dijan played the parts of Ptolomeo and Nireno respectively. Both were well cast and gave very rounded performances. Ptolomeo, with the addition of long, golden finger extensions had an air of child-catcher evilness which immediately taught us to dislike and mistrust him. Nireno was a loyal servant to Cleopatra and was a welcome and reassuring presence. His character helps carry the narrative along, often announcing what was intended to happen or what had happened off stage, yet Benos-Dijan added a depth to his part at all times.

Achilla, the general of Ptolomeo’s Army, was played by Darren Jeffery. His character is somewhat odd in the canon of theatre – he is behind the assassination of Pompeo and brings his dead body to Caesar. He stands by Ptolomeo in the plot to kill Caesar, but falls for Cornelia, Pompeo’s wife. She is rightly horrified by the advances of her husband’s murderer. He makes it clear he would give her freedom in exchange for love – but she – and we the audience – do not believe his word. Then, inexplicably, he changes his mind and decides to fight for Cleopatra, betraying Ptolomeo, and dies in the battlefield. Giulio Cesare is not a complex story by any means, and the characters are fairly na├»ve as befitting the Baroque opera.

One of the expectations of the Baroque opera is that, regardless of it being a tragedy or comedy, the opera must end with all being well in the world. We can’t have too many murders or needless violence, nor excess of emotion. The final chorus of Giulio Cesare sees all of the characters on stage singing of the power of love and the triumph of good over evil. This includes the dead Ptolomeo, singing with a smile and bloody face. This is how Baroque opera is meant to end, with a good moral message. I suspect, therefore, that Achilla had to redeem himself somehow in order to avoid a distasteful display of violence.

Despite a dull and meaningless wardrobe and a lacklustre Caesar, this was a very engaging performance which dazzled in the setting and in the engaging characters. You can take for granted, sometimes, the singing in an opera – all gave a world class delivery in the Baroque technique while adding pathos and emotion clearly.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 13/11/19

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