Charles Eager declares this revival of Opera North’s 2012 Tim Albery production is simply divine.
Handel’s operas are beautiful; but they also have a reputation for being a bit long and turgid. Although a fan of the composer’s non-theatrical works, this was my first chance to see one of his operas on stage. I was not disappointed. Apparently Giulio Cesare is one of his best, and I must say that it was beautifully composed and engagingly dramatic throughout, though this was perhaps partly due to some ‘judicious cuts’ to the four-hour original made by director Tim Albery, which brought it down to a digestible three hours.
A slightly unusual feature of Handelian opera is that, in the day, leading roles such as Cesare and Sesto would have been sung by alto castrato men. Thus Caesar has a much higher voice than a modern listener unacquainted with such practices would expect. You don’t tend to imagine one of the greatest military leaders in history as singing in a high, angelic voice. Nevertheless, that was the style at the time, and, once one is used to it, it makes perfect sense. Nowadays such parts can be played by male countertenors or female altos. This production gave all its main roles (save one or two) to ladies.
The story: Caesar (Maria Sanner) is congratulated on his most recent victory over his Roman rival Pompey. The latter’s wife Cornelia (Catherine Hopper) and son Sextus/Sesto (Heather Lowe) come to Caesar and entreat peace, which the commander freely grants. Immediately after, the Egyptian soldier Achilla (Darren Jeffery) enters, offering Caesar a present from the Egyptian king, Ptolemy (James Laing). Unfortunately, the present is the head of Pompey, which Ptolemy has had separated from the rest of his body. Nobody is happy with this, and Caesar launches into a virtuoso aria accusing Achilla and Ptolemy of impiety and wickedness (Empio, dirò, tu sei).
This sparks the revenge plot in which Sextus seeks to kill king Ptolemy, which is the driving force of the story. Prior to this is one of the opera’s many exceptionally beautiful arias, which is sung by Catherine Hopper’s Cornelia over the body of her late husband. Throughout the night, Catherine Hopper’s warm mezzo voice is the most beautiful and expressive in an expressive cast. Each of Cornelia’s arias is accordingly a delight. (The programme also informs me that Hopper studied music at the University of Leeds; I think that this alumna is one of whom we can be proud!)
When, in the next scene, we meet Cleopatra (a soprano part beautifully sung by Lucie Chartin), she wants to depose her brother (the evil Ptolemy) and become sole ruler of Egypt. Much of the next part of the opera concerns her appeal to Caesar to help her to do this. She disguises herself as a servant girl, Lydia, and he falls in love with her; this part of the plot is superfluous, but offers many delights. For instance, when Caesar realises he has fallen for Cleopatra, it is a gently amusing moment in a more or less serious opera.
The plot is dramatically sophisticated. This is partly owing to Haym’s libretto (revised from an Italian original from the previous century), Albery’s cuts, and of course to the dramatic sensitivity in Handel’s musical writing. As I have mentioned, the parts played by Lucie Chartin’s Cleopatra and Catherine Hopper’s Cornelia furnish us with unspeakably beautiful arias throughout the night, but perhaps the two most spine-tingling moments belong to Caesar.
The first comes near the start of the opera. It is a beautiful elegy, sung over the ashes of Pompey, expatiating on the vanity of earthly things (Alma del gran Pompeo). The second comes closer to the end, when Caesar, who had disappeared from the opera, thought to be drowned at sea during escape, returns for a breathtaking recitativo-soliloquy. Perhaps the most beautiful moment of the night, however, belongs to the duet at the end of Act I (Son nata a lagrimar) sung by Catherine Hopper’s Cornelia and Heather Lowe’s Sextus. It is a gorgeous lament on their sorrowful fates under the tyranny of Ptolemy; when the two harmonised voice parts crunch together a semitone apart at the end of the aria, one has to fight back the waterworks.
Problems? One or two. Although wonderfully sung by James Laing, Ptolemy is a bit of a lame part, made completely, absurdly evil in order to make Sextus’ quasi-psychopathic obsession with revenge seem sympathetic. When the latter finally stabs the former, one yearns for the Christian principles of mercy and forgiveness which are missing from this pagan world. Ptolemy’s costume is more than faintly absurd: he wears strange talons on the ends of his fingers for most of the evening.
Unfortunately, when Cleopatra finally takes the throne, she adopts these ridiculous appendages, which seemed to me to be symbols of maniacal tyranny, and not suitable for her sympathetic character. Regardless of their symbolic value, they make the wearer look more like Edward Scissorhands than some ferocious Egyptian tyrant. When Ptolemy is killed, he is strung upside down. Here my Italian other half leaned over to me and whispered: “Mussolini”. I must say that this likeness hadn’t occurred to me: I was preoccupied with thinking about how inadvisable it is to string one of your actor-singers upside down! Is this in opera singers’ contracts?
But these were minor points in a supremely pleasing evening. The Orchestra of Opera North under Christian Curnyn sounded very well. Although not using totally historical instruments, the orchestra did use historically-informed performance practice (little or no vibrato and terraced dynamics being the main features) and their small size, supported by Oliver John Ruthven/Ashok Gupta’s beautiful harpsichord playing, worked well with the somewhat softer alto and countertenor voices. It was great to hear the theorbo—one of the most beautiful instruments of this or any period—played by Eligio Quinteiro/Alex McCartney; I just wish I had heard this quiet instrument more!
On arrival, Leslie Travers’ set looked unimpressive: humble, dull in colour, uninteresting in construction. However, throughout the night, this moveable set with a hidden reverse of burnished gold (perhaps intentionally recalling Cleopatra’s barge of burnished gold in Shakespeare’s play) was put to various excellent and impressive uses. It would take the length of this review to detail them; I would just encourage readers to go and see it while they can.
This excellent production plays at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 5 Oct, Friday 11, Tuesday 15, and Thursday 17, before touring various northern cities. Many thanks to Opera North for putting all the joy and beauty together, and to my other half for forcing me to get there not just on time but also early (my regular readers know how singular this occurrence is).
All photographs by Alastair Muir.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.