Music: George Frideric Handel
Director: Tim Albery
Conductor: Christian Curnyn
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Broken and weary from a long civil war, and having followed his rival Pompey to Egypt, Julius Caesar is about to find out that his troubles are far from over. For a start, Egypt is ruled by the odious sex-pest Ptolemy and his ruthless sister Cleopatra, both of whom are about to complicate things even further for him. Pompey has been murdered, his wife is grief-stricken and his son out for revenge, and, far from keeping his mind on the job, Caesar’s eye has been caught by Lydia, who says she works for the queen.
It’s a story populated by unlikeable characters. Everyone wielding power over everyone else, lying, cheating and out to cause harm. There’s very little light and shade here, mostly people are at odds with one another, when there’s celebration it’s always at the expense of some other poor soul. Even lovers seem to be draining the life out of each other with their neediness.
The other problem with this overlong opera is that, despite being set in the midst of political turmoil, with everyone out for blood, all of the action happens off stage, and we’re left with a lot of long laments, heart-wrenching and hand-wringing. It’s not that the music isn’t very lovely, it’s not that there aren’t some glorious performances, it’s just there’s a lot of it, and it all feels rather samey.
The repetition isn’t helped by Tim Albery’s sluggish direction which seems to be hampered much of the time by the clunky and over-bearing set design. A huge rotating box in the centre of the stage offers up a city wall, a gold lined palace room and a couple of ugly staircases that performers seem most uncomfortable on, behind, and even, in one case, climbing through. The supporting cast earn their keep by moving the whole thing round laboriously for scene changes. It’s all occasionally softened by Thomas C Hase’s lighting design, which makes good use of candlelight and reflections from a pool of water, but all of the visuals often completely overshadow the small cast who seem a bit lost, particularly when they perform lying or sitting at the front of the stage, where they are partially obscured to everyone in the stalls.
If you can put all of that aside, the vocal performances are what matter here, as they should. Lucie Chartin as Cleopatra doesn’t always come across as the powerhouse she should physically, but she delivers the music with a wonderful presence and clarity. Amy J Payne, understudying at this performance in the role of Cornelia vocally shines as she moves from grief to acceptance and finally to triumph as her husband’s death is avenged, but the highlights are the two male roles performed by women. Contralto Maria Sanner takes on the central role of Caesar and mezzo-soprano Heather Lowe dazzles vocally and as an actor as Pompey’s son Sesto. As such, female voices dominate throughout. There are few duets but two standout moments are the haunting Hope Awakens in My Heart sung by Cornelia and Sesto, and the glorious love duet when Caesar and Cleopatra are reunited. A final rousing chorus brings all the voices together and you can’t help but wish Handel had given us more of this.
There might be a small cast on the stage, but the Opera North Orchestra, under the direction of Garry Walker and conducted by baroque specialist Christian Curnyn are all turned out for this grand musical production. Handel’s trilling and complicated score is delivered with gusto. Horns and woodwind sing through the strings triumphantly and the addition of harpsichord and theorbo (like a lute) create that unmistakeable Baroque sound.
Reviewed on Wednesday 13 November 2019 | Image: Alistair Muir