Monday, 12 March 2018

A terrific achievement: Handel's Giulio Cesare from Bury Court Opera

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Marie Lys, Helen Sherman - Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Marie Lys, Helen Sherman
Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Handel Giulio Cesare; Helen Sherman, Marie Lys, John Lattimore, Catherine Hopper, Russell Harcourt, dir: Greg Eldridge, cond: Dane Lam; Bury Court Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Man 10 2018 Star rating: 4.0
An impressive small-scale production with a lively sense of drama and a sparkling performance from Marie Lys as Cleopatra

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Marie Lys, John Lattimore - Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Marie Lys, John Lattimore
Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Founded a decade ago Bury Court Opera has established itself with a series of imaginative productions, from Purcell to Puccini to Pelleas, which take place in a converted barn near Bentley in Hampshire. Last year the company premiered Noah Mosley's Mad King Suibhne [see my review] and for 2018 the company turned to Handel for the first time, and presented Handel's Giulio Cesare, (seen 10 March 2018) in a production directed by Greg Eldridge [who recently directed Puccini's Tosca for Icelandic Opera, see my review] with designs by Elliott Squire and lighting by Prema Mehta. Dane Lam conducted Camerata Alma Viva, with Helen Sherman as Giulio Cesare, Marie Lys as Cleopatra, John Lattimore as Tolomeo, Catherine Hopper as Cornelia, Russell Harcourt as Sesto, David Ireland as Achilla, Sam Queen as Curio and Elizabeth Lynch as Nireno.

Handel's Giulio Cesare is a huge undertaking for any company; it is a large piece (uncut there is over four hours of music), with a series of rewarding but challenging solo roles which require stylistic awareness and technical proficiency from the singers, not to mention the dramatic challenge of bringing the dramaturgy of opera seria to life for a modern audience.

Working in a small theatrical space, with limited technical facilities, Bury Court Opera seized the opportunities that Handel gave them and presented us with a vividly theatrical evening, bringing out the real drama of the piece and along the way treating us to some first class Handel singing.

Giulio Cesare is not only long but textually complex in that each time Handel revived it he changed it, so decisions need to be made. Bury Court Opera gave us quite a long version, over three hours of music with Act One lasting 75 minutes. The edition used prized getting as much material in as possible, rather than musicological completeness of individual arias, so we had plenty of material for the lesser character including three arias for Nireno (Cleopatra's confidante and a character that Handel made variously male, female, mute and entirely cut from the action). The result was to move focus away from the central two characters and create a more ensemble feel. The drawback was that a significant number of arias were shortened, many had the Da Capo repeat truncated to just the opening ritornello, a form of cutting which falsifies Handel's intentions and creates a rather imbalanced structure, and other arias were reduced to just the A section. To a certain extent, this is personal taste, but I have always preferred cutting entire arias rather than trimming individual ones.

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Catherine Hopper, John Lattimore - Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Catherine Hopper, John Lattimore
Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Elliott Squire's set was a fixed structure evoking a series of sandstone terraces, with the orchestra in pit upstage right thus bringing the acting area close to the audience and ensuring a very intimate experience. Within this timeless structure, the style of the production was eclectic, the Romans were firmly in the 1950s with military uniforms for the men and a stylish dove-grey number for Cornelia's first appearance. The Egyptians seemed to channel the Celts in the TV series, Britannia,  colourful, punk-ish and with plentiful tattoos, creating a striking visual contrast between the two groups and keeping the opera's concern with the otherness of the Egyptians.

Soprano Marie Lys impressed previously in Handel roles such as Asteria in Tamerlano at Buxton [see my review], Dalinda in Ariodante at the Royal College of Music [see my review] and Adelaide in Lotario recorded at Göttingen [see my review] was dazzling as Cleopatra, she brought out the fun, sexy side of the character (Winton Dean once memorably described it as one of Handel's 'sex-kitten' roles), but did not neglect the tragic. We believed in the character's journey so that the tragic arias, 'Se pieta, and 'Piangero' really counted and did not come out of nowhere. It helped that Lys has a sparkling technique so that the series of challenging arias were not just well sung but full of character too.

Helen Sherman made a very human Giulio Cesare. Whilst she did bring a degree of military swagger and nice technical bravura to the showier numbers, it was the way Cesare's emotional journey was depicted that impressed. Central to this was the way Sherman and Lys developed a believable and very sexy relationship, and the delight that Sherman brought to Cesare's aria 'Se in fiorito ameno prato' after meeting Cleopatra was palpable. It was a shame that Sherman suffered from some of the opera's cuts so that her showpiece aria 'Va tacito e nascosto' in Act One was shorn of its Da Capo.

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Marie Lys, Helen Sherman - Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Marie Lys, Helen Sherman
Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Catherine Hopper [whom we saw as Irene in Handel's Tamerlano in Buxton] made a dignified and moving Cornelia. She sang with beautiful control and a contained, sustained intensity with finely shaped phrasing, never for once doubting the intensity of her grief. Hopper's duet with Russell Harcourt's Sesto at the end of Act One was one of the work's highlights.

The role of Sesto was written for soprano Margherita Durastantini and the role is usually sung nowadays by female mezzo-sopranos. Russell Harcourt sang with narrow focused, sweet tone and did successfully evoke the sense of a young man struggling with the need to revenge his father. But the role lies somewhat high for a counter-tenor and sometimes I rather wished for the greater amplitude of tone that a mezzo-soprano would have brought.

John Lattimore cut a striking figure as Tolomeo, bald, tattooed and rather vicious, seemingly channelling Julian Clary; it was a remarkable physical performance. Lattimore sang with attractively, well-modulated tones though I felt that his singing lacked the element of danger that the role needed.

David Ireland was a nicely vigorous Achilla, desperate to woo Cornelia, and Sam Queen provided fine support as Curio. In this version of the opera, the role of Nireno was developed into something more substantial, though whilst Elizabeth Lynch sang Nireno's arias finely there was a sense that they did rather hold up the action. More than that, Lynch's Nireno seemed to have developed a role in the drama which seemed to be a little too prominent considering that lowly status of Nireno in Handel's original.

The hard-working chorus of eight not only sang Handel's choruses and provided Romans and Egyptians, but also moved the scenery too including the set's delightful secret, a pool (with water) hidden under the main playing area!

Dane Lam's speeds were on the lively side, keeping the drama moving and he remained admirably in control despite some tricky sight lines. The orchestra of 20 took a little time to warm up, and with so few strings a little more crisply incisive tone would have been desirable.

Gred Eldridge's production was lively and engaging, and Eldridge had the knack of creating vibrant movement. Handel arias are long and Eldridge had a way of keeping the drama moving without resorting to padding, or seeming to need to entertain the audience. At times, perhaps, things were a little busy but with such a committed performance in such an intimate space, the results were completely absorbing. There were a couple of moments in Act Three when the production became rather too playfully knowing. Admirably Eldridge and his team avoided the temptation to send up the work, and they took the drama seriously.

This was a terrific achievement and a remarkable team effort, creating a striking drama and doing full justice to Handel's virtuoso music.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Laurence Cummings on the London Handel Festival, Stravinsky, opera, time-travel and more - interview
  • Musicological melange, creative entertainment: Carmen at the Royal Opera House (★★★) - opera review
  • Hard-hitting yet transcendent: Janacek's From the House of the Dead (★★★★) - CD review
  • My last Duchess: the songs of Grace Williams from Jeremy Huw Williams (★★★½) - CD review
  • Remarkable dialogues - Poulenc's opera at the Guildhall - Opera review
  • Goldilocks translated: The Opera Story's latest production (★★★★) - opera review
  • Contrasting double: Puccini's Il tabarro & Gianni Schicchi from ETO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Beyond an auspicious debut: I chat to French Horn player Ben Goldscheider - interview
  • A return to the world of sleep and dreams: Robert Carsen's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream  (★★★½) - opera review
  • The complete piano works of John McCabe - volume 1 (★★★½) - CD review
  • Handelian celebration with the Foundling Hospital Anthem  (★★★½) - concert review
  • Bach on the piano, Sandro Ivo Bartoli in Bach's smaller pieces (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Well worth crossing the Red Sea for: Rossini's Mosè in Egitto from Chelsea Opera Group (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Music, myth and time: Karen Cargill and the Scottish Ensemble at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Home

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