Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Parts 1 and 2
Hackney Empire, 7th October 2017
The more opera I see, the less I want to see. Yet this does not mean I don’t enjoy opera: on the contrary, when it works, it can match the best that theatre can offer in terms of transcendent entertainment. The problem is that there are so few composers, (and even fewer librettists), who do it for me. This opportunity set narrows even further with disappointing productions. I mean to continue to try to unravel this paradox though even if it risks being, frankly, a bit bored for parts of an evening.
So we come to the English Touring Opera’s production of George Frideric Handel’s Guilio Cesare in Egitto, Julius Caesar in Egypt to you and me, at the lovely Hackney Empire. It isn’t on my back door but I have an affection for this lovely theatre, which always feels airy to me and where the views and tickets are good value.
This was my first Handel of the billions he wrote. I realised that taking on one of the old boy’s very longest operas (over four hours uncut), even split into two parts, and in one afternoon/evening, was asking for trouble. But I figured, from what I know of his music and having listened to a production as part of my homework, that the tunes were sufficiently digestible to allow me to slip a bit on the concentration front.
And so it proved. Since I don’t know the piece I can’t really tell you anything about the musical structure, but the tunes, smoothly delivered by the Old Street Band, under the baton of Jonathan Peter Kenny, are very easy on the ear. Maybe a bit too easy. The ensemble, a mix of modern and appropriate period, burbled along at the brisk pace that underpins much of Handel’s score, and the balance between soloists and musicians was spot on from where I was sitting. The chorus, in smart casual, occupied the slips, creating a nice surprise on their entry.
I also enjoyed the singing and acting to a large degree. The counter-tenors, Christopher Ainslie playing an up-right/tight Giulio Cesare, and Benjamin Williamson as the craven Tolomeo, were captivating. Remember these parts would have been castrati in original productions, along with Nierno, here sung by Thomas Scott-Cowell. Fortunately authentic performance doesn’t extend that far. Soprano Sonaya Mafi as mendacious Cleopatra, was probably the best of the bunch vocally, with Kitty Whately as her son Sesto, a little less forceful, though she captured the character’s ineffectual simpering very well. Ever the disappointment to his Mummy. There was a perhaps a little bit too much of contralto Catherine Carby’s Cornelia. Not the fault of the singer; it was just there were only so many ways she could convey her grief at the loss of brutally beheaded hubby, Pompey. The cast was rounded out by the two basses, Frederick Long as Caesar’s faithful sidekick Curio and Benjamin Bevan as Achilla, Tolomeo’s brother in arms who turns against him.
I was very struck by the elegant set and costume design of Cordelia Chisholm and by the lighting design of Mark Howland. ETO Director James Conway wisely chose to locate the production at the time of its premiere in 1724, with sumptuous Regency threads and gilt and blue hues predominating. The Romans stand in for the upright Hanoverian Protestants and the Egyptians the Catholic troublemakers. There were a handful of effective visual coups, including Cleopatra’s dissonant entrance posed as a Virgin Mary bent on seduction (!). There are some excellent essays in the programme (which also covered ETO’s other current production Rameau’s Dardanus), on the differences between Italian and French opera at the time and on the contemporary performance of Handel’s opera. James Conway also persuasively explains his interpretation of the motivations behind the characters, the sub-text relating to the Protestant succession and the pesky Jacobites, his decision to stretch the full text out over two parts and to up the seria quotient and expunge any buffa.
And this for me was where the production went slightly awry. Old Handel was never at the cutting edge of musical fashion so the structure of the opera is still firmly Baroque with some admittedly fine, showy arias, interspersed with quite a lot of dry recitative. Every character, bar the two retainers, gets a few turns. This tends inevitably towards a “park and bark” delivery. The narrative is pretty straightforward with little in the way of pace change or surprises. Caesar has pursued Pompey to Egypt. Tolomeo has had Pompey’s head chopped off. Cornelia, his now widow and her son Sesto, swear vengeance, repeatedly. Cleopatra wants to oust brother Tolomeo and enlists Cornelia, Sesto and Caesar into her cunning plan. Caesar falls for Cleopatra, and, much to her surprise she reciprocates. Tolomeo attempts to have Caesar killed but he escapes. Dirty Tolomeo is eventually skewered by Sesto. Caesar returns with turncoat Achilla and conquers Egypt installing Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne.
To make the two parts, titled The Death of Pompey and Cleopatra’s Needle, work independently, Mr Conway gives us a near hour of overlap at the start of the second part. As I say, given the fairly even pace of proceedings, musically and dramatically, this was a little frustrating, especially as the scenes which follow the overlap are about as dramatic as the whole affair gets. It also means we end up with a surfeit of Cornelia and Cleopatra, but not when they are most interesting (from the plot, and for Cleopatra musical, points of view) in the final scenes. And we are hours in before we get to Caesar and Tolomeo’s most exciting turns. My fault. I should have found out more about the structure ahead of the production.
So a nice to be there rather than a must see. and probably enough to persuade me not to add Handel to the small list of opera composers I have to seek out: Monteverdi if the director takes some risks, Mozart, if the production can make sense of the misogyny and any daftness, Fidelio obviously, Janacek, Berg, Stravinsky, Britten and some modern/contemporary stuff.
However, if the Baroque twirls of Handel get your juices flowing, and you are appraised of the production length, then this is definitely worth a shot. At the time of writing this I see that the good people of Portsmouth, Norwich, Buxton, Durham, Saffron Walden, Bath, Exeter, Keswick and Great Malvern, are all due a visit from these exemplary troupe.