Outside of Glyndebourne and London, Handel’s operas are rarely performed in Britain. Exposure to them tends to be limited to Radio 3 broadcasts, which rarely show these works to best advantage: hearing them, with their etiolated accompaniment and preponderance of high voices, you’d be forgiven for thinking that these were static works in which very little happens to beatuiful and harmonious music.
Tim Albery’s production for Opera North gave the lie to any such idea - Giulio Cesare (‘Julius Caesar’ in the vulgar tongue) is a veritable historical action-thriller-cum-romance, in which the titular Roman conqueror comes across as a James Bond of the ancient world, dodging plots, finding himself betrayed and beaten but coming through in the last reel and getting (if not actually bedding) the girl. This is the story of the young Caesar, full of daring and ambition, long before his bloody end in the Roman capitol.
Like the company’s current revival of La Boheme, Albery locates the action in a ’neutral zone’ in which First World War costumes mix with styles of earlier and later periods. Leslie Travers’ versatile set design allows a moveable central space to alternate as battle ramparts, palaces and dungeons. On this, Caesar’s varying fortunes are played out - his encounters with Corneila, widow of his vanquished foe Pompeo, Cleopatra, his new love interest and future queen of Egypt and, most memorably of all, Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s brother, King of Egypt and the opera’s principal antagonist - here presented as a classic Bond villain, complete with terrifying tapering fingernails.
The singing was generally very fine, with all singers observing a consistency of line and maintaining effective tone throughtou the long (three hours, including interval) evening. Contralto Maria Sanner as Caesar may not have an ideally arge voice but her performance grew in stature after an uncertain beginning, one that left its mark on the action even during the long stretches when she was off-stage. She is well matched by Heather Lowe’s plangently sung Sesto and Catherine Hopper’s affectingly grief-stricken Cornelia. But perhaps the dramatic honours go to Lucie Chartin’s sexpot Cleopatra - incarnating something of the spirit of Cinderella in this telling of the story - and counter-tenor James Laing’s repellent Tolomeo, perfectly judged to evince menace and humour while avoiding camp.
In the pit, Manoj Kamps presided over the smaller forces required with crisp authority and extraordinary expressive hands (no baton was required!) over an immaculate rendering of the score.
Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 6/11/19