Friday, 6 October 2017

Giulio Cesare uncut: English Touring Opera in top form in Handel's opera split over two evenings

English Touring Opera - Handel: Giulio Cesare - Christopher Ainslie, Soraya Mafi (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
English Touring Opera - Handel: Giulio Cesare - Christopher Ainslie, Soraya Mafi (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel Giulio Cesare, parts 1 & 2; Christopher Ainslie, Soraya Mafi, Catherine Carby, Kitty Whately, Benjamin Williamson, dir: James Conway, cond: Jonathan Peter Kenny; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 & 5 Oct 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Uncut and in two parts, Handel's opera seria given a strongly characterised new production

English Touring Opera - Handel: Giulio Cesare - Catherine Carby, Benjamin Williamson (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Catherine Carby, Benjamin Williamson (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
It seems to have been a week for imaginatively creative solutions to the problems of performing Baroque opera. No sooner than Daisy Evans and the Academy of Ancient music gave us a radical new version of Purcell's King Arthur (see my review), than English Touring Opera (ETO) opened its Autumn tour at the Hackney Empire by performing Handel's Giulio Cesare complete (all four hours of it) split over two nights (4 and 5 October 2017). James Conway's production divided the work into Giulio Cesare: The Death of Pompey and Giulio Cesare: Cleopatra's Needle, the first ending with Cleopatra's 'Per pieta' and the second re-capping somewhat events from the end of the first before giving us the conclusion.

ETO has assembled a very strong cast for the tour, Christopher Ainslie was Caesar and Soraya Mafi was Cleopatra, with Catherine Carby as Cornelia, Kitty Whately as Sesto, Benjamin Williamson as Tolomeo, Frederick Long as Curio, Thomas Scott-Cowell as Nireno and Benjamin Bevan as Achilla. Designs were by Cordelia Chisholm with lighting by Mark Howland. Jonathan Peter Kenny conducted the Old Street Band.

James Conway's production was placed in a Cordelia Chisholm's gilt box setting, with variable rear walls which enabled a variety of stage effects. The costumes and raison d'etre behind the production were inspired by the period of the work's composition. James Conway, in an excellent article in the programme booklet, introduced the work and the thinking behind the staging. So no Egypt, instead Cleopatra and Tolomeo and their sense of foreign otherness were inspired by the fickle and fascinating (and Roman Catholic) French court with Guilio Cesare, Curio, Cornelia and Sesto the more sober (and Protestant) English. The production did not take the parallels too far, but it provided a helpful basis, and the most daring move was to have Cleopatra's 'V'adoro pupille' as a vision of the BVM rather than a Greco-Roman goddess.

English Touring Opera - Handel: Giulio Cesare - Soraya Mafi, Benjamin Williamson - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Soraya Mafi, Benjamin Williamson - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
But though the production did not neglect grand effects, this was a very serious character based account of the work. Conway always pays Handel the complement of taking his opera seria seriously, there was no added comic business, no dancing and no extraneous crowd-pleasing spectacle. That is not to say it lacked wit and display but what seems to have interested Conway most was the interaction of the five leading characters, Giulio Cesare (Christopher Ainslie), Cleopatra (Soraya Mafi), Cornelia (Catherine Carby), Kitty Whately (Sesto) and Tolomeo (Benjamin Williamson), aided by their three companions Giulio Cesare's office Curio (Frederick Long), Tolomeo's ally Achilla (Benjamin Bevan) and Cleopatra's counsellor Nireno (Thomas Scott-Cowell), here transformed into a complaisant Roman Catholic priest. There was no stage chorus, the parts were sung from the auditorium by the Imperial War Museum Singers (the group is different at each of ETO's venues on the tour). And Conway and his cast did an imaginative job creating a sense of the audience being the assembled throng in the opening scene.

Soraya Mafi's Cleopatra was rather more strong minded and determined than some. Given the arias sometimes cut, Mafi had leisure to help us explore Cleopatra's fascinating personality, sex kitten (pace Winton Dean) yes, but calculatingly so and full of delightful artifice yet also a politician using her sex to best advantage. And a dominatrix too, she tied Tolomeo up in their scene together and the sexual tension between Mafi and Williamson (the closest thing to comedy in Part One) hinted at darker things (the historical Ptolomaic dynasty was notorious for its incest).

English Touring Opera - Handel Giulio Cesare - Catherine Carby, Thomas Scott-Cowell, Kitty Whately - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
 Catherine Carby, Thomas Scott-Cowell, Kitty Whately
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
'V'adoro pupille' was delightful, all sexy artifice, though economics meant that accompaniment was firmly in the pit (rather than having the goddess surrounded by the muses playing instruments). All this changed with 'Per pieta' at the end of Part One, which received a performance startling in intensity. Yes, Mafi gave us the poignantly beautiful lines, but also dug far deeper. This was a Cleopatra shocked out of her control. 'Piangero' had a similar intensity, bringing out the underlying bleakness of the piece. And of course,  her final aria was the joyful showpiece it should be, but not all froth there was a hint of vindication and determination too. Perhaps Mafi was sometimes a little too controlled, too determined, but this was a notable debut and one which will relax as the tour goes on.

Christopher Ainslie made a poised Giulio Cesare, very much in control, the ideal enlightenment ruler. the opening scenes had more graciousness than despotism, and his reaction to Pompey (both alive and dead) had commonality with the Enlightenment virtues preached in Mozart's Die Entfuhrung. But Giulio Cesare also falls in love, which disturbs the pattern. Both he and Cleopatra are canny political operators discumknockerated by unexpectedly falling in love. The role seems to suit Ainslie's voice, something not true of all counter-tenors as the original Giulio Cesare, the alto castrato Senesino, had a relatively restricted range. Ainslie's account of the great arias, such as 'Va tacito' gave us much to enjoy, though occasionally you would have liked the snap of a bit more personality to snap the character out of balance a little.

English Touring Opera - Handel Giulio Cesare - Christopher Ainslie - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Christopher Ainslie - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
The opening of Act Three provided Ainslie a chance to show us another side of the character as Giulio Cesare recovers from his near drowning in a piece of effective staging. Here Ainslie really did give us more of a sense of the man underneath the Enlightenment ruler, but of course Giulio Cesare triumphs in the end.

Mafi and Ainslie really brought out the naval gazing intensity of their final duet, as only Curio and Nireno looked on in admirationa and satisfaction. For the final Coro we stepped out of the drama to point the moral as Achilla and Tolomeo returned from the dead to complete the harmony.

I had thought the ornament in the arias a trifle too elaborate, till I read conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny's article in the programme book about consulting period treatises as well as Handel's own surviving ornaments (for arias from Ottone). All are surprisingly more elaborate than we would expect, though no major changes to the envelope of the vocal line and no major recomposition of the material, simply lots of extra notes. And at the opening of Act Three, Ainslie gave us a lovely messa di voce (swelling and then reducing volume on a single note), a technique for which Senesino (the original Giulio Cesare) was particularly known.

Catherine Carby's Cornelia was more complex and simply not as nice or as sympathetic as some performances. Yes, she was grieving and very much on her dignity, but she was absorbed in her grief, focussed on this to the detriment of her relationship with Kitty Whately's Sesto.  Carby sang with a nice sense of focussed intensity, and lovely warm line, eliciting much sympathy. Kitty Whately's Sesto was clearly young, Whately brilliantly suggested his being ill at ease and unready for the demands which his father's death and Cornelia's expectations placed on him. This was less a revolutionary than a young man desperate to show off. Whately showed this with the bright, flexible and impulsive tone which she brought to the arias. Sesto and Cornelia's duet which concludes Act One was perhaps bleaker than some, more true to the emotions.

English Touring Opera - Handel Giulio Cesare - Benjamin Williamson, Catherine Carby - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Benjamin Williamson, Catherine Carby - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
The aria which closes Act Two saw Kitty Whately's Sesto really psyching himself up for an attempt on Tolomeo, a real dramatic tour de force. And in Act Three, when Sesto really does kill Tolomeo the sense of trauma never leaves and the opera concluded with Whately's Sesto still gripping the knife, traumatised and seemingly considering further violence. In this he was egged on by his mother, as Catherine Carby's Cornelia was clearly not content with her lot and had not intention of letting the sister of her husband's murderer triumph.


It was nice to see Tolomeo (Benjamin Williamson) being treated as effete but heterosexual rather than the camp character sometimes given us. Dressed in full wig and coat, a la Francaise, this Tolomeo was a young many tryng to impress someone far more experienced, so that Giulo Cesare's 'Va tacito' became a masterclass in political operation and manoeuvring. Throughout Williamson brought out Tolomeo's delight in manipulation and torment (his playing with Pompey's ashes in front of Cornelia was a nice touch) and his combination of weakness and viciousness.

The small roles, all present in this version, were each nicely differentiated. Benjamin Bevan's Achilla was a bluf soldier, his arias rough, vivid and characterful. Both Frederick Long as Curio, Thomas Scott-Cowell as Nireno provided strong support

Jonathan Peter Kenny's speeds certainly did not take any prisoners, but the cast coped admirably and gave us some technically brilliant moments. The Old Street Band was in similar fine fettle, with notable instrumental moments such as the independent bassoon part in 'Per pieta' and the horn obbligato in 'Va tacito'.

English Touring Opera - Handel Giulio Cesare - Christopher Ainslie, Soraya Mafi - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
English Touring Opera - Handel Giulio Cesare - Christopher Ainslie, Soraya Mafi - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Presenting the work in two parts worked very well in terms of being able to hear all the opera in its uncut form. Not every aria Handel wrote was a complete masterpiece. But the way baroque opera works with individual arias exploring different emotions, we can only get a fully rounded character by hearing every aria. I am sure Ainslie and Mafi will be singing Giulio Cesare and Cleopatra in other productions, but I doubt they will get many opportunities to explore the characters so fully. The down-side of this was, of course, that two scenes from Act Two were repeated. Part Two opened with another Handel overture and a summary of past events on the surtitles, and then we plunged into scenes two and three, which we had already seen. I enjoyed this, and the perspective was a little different (though not as great as I had expected), but not everyone did and two ladies at the interval had clearly timed exactly how long the repeated section lasted (35 minutes evidently). What was surprising was how enjoyable it was to return to these characters and pick up where we had left off the previous day. In a festival format, doing one Act per day might be rather fun.

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