Composer: George Frideric Handel
Libretto: Nicola Francesco Haym
Director: Tim Albery
Conductor: Christian Curnyn
Designer: Leslie Travers
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Handel’s Julius Caesar is not an early example of an opera based on Shakespeare. The full title is Giulio Cesare in Egitto and the knives out for Caesar are not in the hands of Cassius and Brutus, but of Ptolemy and his general Achilla. One thing that the opera has in common with Shakespeare’s play is the title character is not our main focus of interest: here it falls on the Egyptian rulers, Tolomeo (Ptolemy) and, especially, his queen/wife/sister/hated rival, Cleopatra.
Giulio Cesare has pursued his now defeated rival Pompeo to Egypt and has just agreed with Cornelia, Pompeo’s wife, to end the conflict when Achilla brings Pompeo’s murdered body as a present from Tolomeo. Mortally offended by such uppish behaviour from a vassal state – after all, Pompeo may have been his enemy, but he was a Roman! – Caesar is all the more inclined to support Cleopatra in her struggle to gain power from Tolomeo. Her beauty when she appears, initially disguised as her own servant, is the clincher. Thereafter the plot unfolds with bedroom diplomacy while, off stage and unseen, mighty armies muster. Sesto, Pompeo’s son, vows vengeance on Tolomeo; Achilla forcibly seeks the hand of Cornelia; Tolomeo agrees to this if Achilla sees to killing Cesare, but really desires Cornelia for himself.
Early 18th-century opera seria is a foreign country: they certainly did things differently there. Generals and suchlike could be sung by basses, certainly, but there was no place for the heroic or romantic tenor. Cesare, Tolomeo and Cleopatra’s confidential servant, Nireno, were sung by castrati and Opera North follows current practice in assigning Cesare to a contralto and the other two to counter-tenors. Handel had a flexible approach to matters of gender casting and young Sesto was allotted to a female singer from the start.
Whilst much of the music in Handel’s operas is glorious, the structure and pace of opera seria is also strange to modern tastes. Events – sometimes confusing or contradictory – pelt by at speed in the recitative, but there is always time to reflect on emotions in da capo arias. Opera North’s version of the opera reduces it from four hours of music to less than three hours stage time.
Tim Albery’s production, rightly praised on its first staging in 2012, solves the problems of tone that a Handelian opera can pose to a modern director. A po-faced solemnity doesn’t work and stylishly witty or grotesque touches enhance the effect, but he avoids the temptation to parody the absurdities of opera seria: if the story is hard to believe, the emotions are real.
Leslie Travers’ set and costumes are never merely decorative. Cesare’s mud-stained great-coat and the massive finger-nail extensions of Tolomeo are equally symbols of power, of the battle-hardened campaigning general and the vain self-glorifying king; the matching blue silk of Tolomeo and Cleopatra emphasizes their royal status; Sesto’s cadet uniform and Achilla’s fascist-general look are equally suggestive of their status. The set is manoeuvred by “slaves” to present a craggy block of masonry or a burnished gold interior, often full of candle-lit reflections: battle-field and palace, Rome and Egypt.
Lucie Chartin’s Cleopatra sparkles from the start, physically and vocally, initially almost frivolous, always sensuous and ultimately emotionally profound. Swedish contralto Maria Sanner, like Chartin debuting with Opera North, is convincing in her “trouser” role and sings with perfect period style, though her voice is a little soft-grained for the battlefield hero. James Laing as Tolomeo is a preening psychopath whose ringing counter-tenor has a constant hint of menace.
Also outstanding in a fine cast of eight is Heather Lowe who sings the apprentice hero Sesto with superb attack and expressiveness. Catherine Hopper is moving as Cornelia, Darren Jeffery’s Mussolini-with-conscience is perfect for Achilla, and Dean Robinson’s sturdy Curio (Cesare’s general) and Paul-Antoine’s Benos-Djian’s active Nireno give stalwart support.
Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn elicits eminently stylish playing from the orchestra, with memorable contributions from horns, violin and viola da gamba.
Touring nationwide | Image: Alastair Muir