The full name of Handel's opera is Giulio Cesare in Egitto: it depicts a historically loose version of Caesar's sojourn in Alexandria, during which Pompey is murdered, Ptolemy is killed in battle and Cleopatra is installed as Queen. In Michael Keegan-Dolan's new production for ENO, we know we're in Egypt straight away because when we enter the auditorium, we see a giant crocodile in the middle of an otherwise plain stage (apart from the dead giraffe in the corner, of which more later). Everyone is in shiny white clothes, and there's definitely a "Caesar as big game hunter" thing going on here.
It rapidly becomes clear that conductor Christian Curnyn enjoys his Handel and is able to infect the ENO orchestra with plenty of enthusiasm. The playing is spirited, crisp and brisk to the point where the singers are only just able to keep up with those terrifying semiquaver runs. But keep up they do, and after everyone warmed up, the singing ranged from thoroughly competent to really excellent. Patricia Bardon was outstanding as Pompey's widow Cornelia, her rich contralto exuding authority as well as following Handel's beautifully lyrical lines with rare elegance of phrasing. From the beginning, her opening aria Priva son d'ogni conforto was captivating. (I'll use the Italian aria names for recognisability, although this production was sung in English.)
In the title role, Lawrence Zazzo didn't come out of the blocks quite as quickly, but he simply kept getting better. In Aure, deh, per pietà, the Act III aria in which Caesar is washed up on the beach and calls on the winds to breathe gently on his chest, Zazzo showed spectacular technique, building a crescendo very slowly from the quietest pianissimo to full power with total control and smoothness: a really impressive piece of singing. Anna Christy sounded pretty as Cleopatra. I might have wished for something a little more regal and less damsel-in-distress, especially for Act II, but her big Act III lament, Piangerò la sorte mia ("flow, my tears") was of the highest quality. As the evil Ptolemy, Tim Mead was energetic and accurate, if a shade underpowered for the ENO orchestra's non-period instruments. Mead was the most notable of the actors, camping up the part to the maximum.
Which brings me back to the production. Opera productions are a personal thing, and I'm not going to state baldly that this was a bad one, but as regards my own taste, it contributed little that was positive and contained much that irritated me. Visually, I found it unappealing, with a cheap-looking set that was 95% giant chipboard. In the interests of keeping the production time under four hours, Keegan-Dolan and Curnyn chose to keep as many arias as possible but cut most of the recitative, mainly replacing the narrative by actions of a group of dancers (the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre): in Keegan-Dolan's words, "Actions speak louder than words, and images speak a thousand words". For me, I'm afraid, the dancers didn't accomplish anything other than to distract me from the singers - and given the high quality of the singing, this was an unmitigatedly bad thing. Give me "park and bark" any day, I felt, if this is the best available alternative. Of course, if you love modern dance and can't bear the tedium of watching nothing except a singer's facial expression all the way through a six minute da capo aria, then the dancing may be just right for you.
It's not so long ago that Handel's operas were considered to be unstageable, largely because of the succession of long arias which break up any dramatic sequence - something that's exacerbated if you get rid of the recitative. Keegan-Dolan seems to agree that there's no point in trying to extract any drama out of proceedings, because at many of the key moments, he chooses to make the audience laugh: Ptolemy dispatches the eggs of the giant crocodile with a croquet mallet; he torments Cornelia with the tongue cut off the giraffe, which has been dragged on stage rather the way a child would drag a stuffed toy too big for it, Caesar is hastily putting his trousers back on as he prepares to confront Ptolemy's assassins. Intentionally or otherwise, a lot of the action scenes look plain silly, because the protagonists all have guns which they unaccountably fail to fire before being overpowered. Keegan-Dolan thinks it's "dramatically interesting" to turn Sesto from a son into a daughter: personally, I couldn't see it.
If you love Handel operas, Julius Caesar has a long string of some of his most glorious arias, and it's worth going to see this production simply to hear them marvellously played and sung. You may enjoy Keegan-Dolan's production, but if, like me, you don't, you can always shut your eyes and not let it distract you. If you're in the opposite camp, who would like to take your dramatic opera seriously and can't cope with an apparently endless series of musical tableaux with no momentum, this won't convert you.
The triumphant climax of the composer’s Royal Academy years, and arguably the grandest, most sumptuously tuneful opera seria of them all, Handel’s Julius Caesar returns to ENO’s repertoire for the first time since its legendary 1979 staging first established the company’s reputation as London’s reigning ‘House of Handel’.
Featuring Lawrence Zazzo, ‘the king of countertenors’ (Financial Times), as Caesar and Anna Christy – 2010’s ‘mesmerising’ (The Times) Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor – as Cleopatra, this new production is conducted by Baroque expert Christian Curnyn, whose previous ENO credits include 2011’s Castor and Pollux. Directing is the innovative Michael Keegan-Dolan, who returns to ENO with his own Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre following their sensational 2009 Olivier Award-nominated staging of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
London ColiseumSt. Martin's Lane
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2N 4ES
Julius Caesar, Anna Christy, Fabulous Beast © Robert Workman