Giulio Cesare (Opera North)
November 6 2019
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
Opera North proves that Caesar can still conquer the 21st century stage
Opera North’s publicity department is stretching things a bit when they say that their production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare has ‘all the epic sweep of a Hollywood blockbuster’. It doesn’t – and couldn’t have, Handel’s world of stiff operatic conventions being several light years away from Tinseltown’s high-octane, rapid-fire excitement. In Handel there’s not much action, lots of long, florid arias and because the music is so formal we listen (perhaps) more with our heads than our hearts.
Oh, and there’s one problem we are unlikely to solve now. Handel wrote his star parts for men who had been castrated before puberty and who grew into huge adults with voices that must have sounded like trumpets at full throttle. Opera North’s Maria Sanner is very fine, coping with a wide emotional range and lots of breath-taking runs, but she probably doesn’t produce even half the volume of sound that Handel would have expected.
Giulio Cesare is for people who like smaller-scale passions and, despite the formality, there are plenty of emotions which strike true today, mainly those of courage, joy and sorrow. Indeed sorrow is an easy winner in Giulio Cesare and the action provides many opportunities for grief and anguish. For instance, in the first five minutes Caesar is none too pleased when the Egyptians offer him the dead body of his rival (but fellow Roman) Pompey. And you can imagine that Pompey’s widow isn’t exactly over-the-moon either, although she expresses herself in music as calm as it is sorrowful.
As long as you know what to expect, Handel operas offer musical treasure in abundance. If you are going to dip your toe in this wondrous ocean, then there is no better place to start than Giulio Cesare. What it lacks in Valkyries, love-sick Bohemians and herds of camels and elephants it more than makes up in magnificent music. It created a sensation when first performed in 1720 – because it provided such spectacular opportunities for its star singers to dazzle and delight. The virtuosic arias come thick and fast and that’s where the real drama of the opera lies. Tim Albery’s/Leslie Travers’ design allows the audience to focus on singers and orchestra whilst ingeniously contrasting the grim concrete of Rome with the golden, candle-reflecting opulence of Egypt.
The opera tells the story of Julius Caesar’s visit to Egypt and his seduction by the wily Cleopatra. Its complex, sumptuous arias reach deep within the characters, giving the emotional twists of the plot vibrant expression. The Orchestra of Opera North, under its young conductor Manoj Kamps, may not be specialist baroque players but seem at home with the demands of Handel’s scoring, nowhere more so than in the accompaniment of Cleopatra’s meltingly beautiful ‘V’adoro, pupille’.
Vocally this is a very fine production, with all members of the team impressing. Lucy Chartin shines as the seductive, despairing Cleopatra and Heather Lowe is superb in the role of Sesto. James Laing is disturbingly convincing as the power-and-sex-mad Ptolemy and Catherine Hopper painfully convincing as his victim Cornelia. In our operatic world devoid of castrati, Maria Sanner’s Caesar may seem underpowered at times but she is technically assured and brings dignified authority to the opera’s extreme situations. Veering from fiercely dramatic revenge arias to movingly tragic ones, Opera North proved that, despite the odds, Handel’s Caesar can still conquer the 21st century stage.
Maria Sanner Giulio Cesare
Lucie Chartin Cleopatra
Catherine Hopper Cornelia
Heather Lowe Sesto
James Laing Tolomeo
Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian Nireno
Dean Robinson Curio
Darren Jeffery Achilla
Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North conducted by Manoj Kamps
Tim Albery Director
Leslie Travers Set and Costume Designer
Thomas C. Hase Lighting Designer