Monday, 30 September 2019

Vicious scheming and visual splendour, but seduction too: Opera North's revival of Handel's Giulio Cesare

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, Heather Lowe, Catherine Hopper, Lucie Chartin, Maria Sanner, Dean Robinson, and (top) Darren Jeffery and James Laing - Opera North 2019 (Photo Alastair Muir)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, Heather Lowe, Catherine Hopper, Lucie Chartin, Maria Sanner, Dean Robinson, and (top) Darren Jeffery and James Laing
Opera North 2019 (Photo Alastair Muir)
Handel Giulio Cesare; Maria Sanner, Lucie Chartin, Catherine Hopper, Heather Lowe, James Laing, dir: Tim Albery, cond: Christian Curnyn; Opera North at the Grand Theatre Leeds
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 September 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Imaginative designs and a strong ensemble performance make this an engaging and dramatic evening, with some very fine singing

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Maria Sanner, Lucie Chartin - Opera North 2019 (Photo Alastair Muir)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Maria Sanner, Lucie Chartin
Opera North 2019 (Photo Alastair Muir)
On Saturday 28 September 2019 at Leeds Grand Theare, Opera North has revived Tim Albery's 2012 production of George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare which features Leslie Travers striking designs. Swedish contralto Maria Sanner was Giulio Cesare with Lucie Chartin as Cleopatra [last seen as Ophélie in Opera2Day's 2018 production of Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet in the Hague, see my review], Catherine Hopper as Cornelia [last seen as Cornelia in Bury Court Opera's Giulio Cesare in 2018, see my review], Heather Lowe as Sesto [last seen as Angelina in Rossini's La Cenerentola at West Green Opera this year, see my review], James Laing as Tolomeo [last seen as Daniel in Handel's Belshazzar at The Grange Festival this year, see my review], Darren Jeffery as Achilla, Paul-Antoine Benos Djian as Nireno and Dean Robinson as Curio. Christian Curnyn conducted the orchestra of Opera North.

Giulio Cesare is a long opera with around four hours of music [English Touring Opera bravely performed it complete over two evenings in 2017, see my review], the role of Cleopatra has nine arias and a duet, totalling around an hour of music! Tim Albery had cut the opera to bring the running time to around three hours, with one interval part-way through Act Two. Gone were arias for the minor characters, though Darren Jeffrey as Achilla got a single one, A section only. Gone too was the chorus, it was s shame that cast members could not have sung the off-stage choral refrain which punctuates Caesar's aria when le learns of Tolomeo's attack, it is a striking and daring moment.

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Catherine Hopper, Heather Lowe - Opera North 2019 (Photo Alastair Muir)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Catherine Hopper, Heather Lowe
Opera North 2019 (Photo Alastair Muir)
It is fatally easy, when reviewing Handel's dramatic works, to lament the losses as a result of cuts but we need to accept that few of the operas and oratorios are designed for modern theatre-going. The need to cut Giulio Cesare means that each director gets to shape the work. Bury Court's performance last year included as much music as possible by trimming arias down to just the A section, whilst Tim Albery favoured cutting whole arias, yet kept things pacey (thanks also to Christian Curnyn's tempos). Recitative was trimmed too, yet the result hung together as fluid drama rather than feeling like a sequence of 'greatest hits'. It helped that we had a fine ensemble performance from the strong cast.

Leslie Travers' designs were simple yet spectacular, a truncate pyramid which came apart to reveal a gilded interior. So that for the seduction scene, candles and light from a reflecting pool in the middle created a setting as seductive visually as the performance was musically and dramatically. Travers' costumes provided some neat colour coding with the Ptolomaic siblings both wearing an imperial purple/blue, including what seemed like their underwear! Whilst the Romans were in battle fatigues. And a nice touch of otherness was added by Tolomeo's wonderful ceremonial gilded fingernails, unfeasibly long and very striking. Our final image of Lucie Chartin's Cleopatra was of her on the throne in imperial purple/blue, gilded fingernails on display with Sanner's Caesar stood behind her.



Maria Sanner made a strong, centred Caesar, singing with a lovely evenness of tone over the whole range [the role often suits the contralto voice more than counter-tenors]. Commanding when needed, yet intelligent and balanced, this was a very modern portrayal. Perhaps ultimately Sanner lacked a touch of temperament, the sense of losing control in the face of Lucie Chartin's Cleopatra, or imperiousness when dealing with the Egyptians. But this is to quibble when faced with such a beautifully sung account of the role. Caesar's great Act One hunting aria, with its terrific horn obbligato, was sung here as an aside to Curio (Laing's Tolomeo being absent from the stage), and felt more intimate and less the show piece. Yet Caesar's Act Two aria, with violin obbligato, on learning of Lydia/Cleopatra's love was pure exuberant delight.

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Heather Lowe, James Laing, Darren Jeffrey - Opera North 2019 (Photo Alastair Muir)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Heather Lowe, James Laing, Darren Jeffrey
Opera North 2019 (Photo Alastair Muir)
Lucie Chartin sang Cleopatra with a light almost fragile tone which belied the sparkiness of the way she portrayed the character. This was a Cleopatra who knew how to get what she wanted, just as much a schemer as her her brother. Her account of her seduction aria, 'V'adoro pupille', was masterly as she  seductively removed her stockings. Similarly, 'Piangero' and 'Per pieta' were twin highlights of the second half, with a moving vulnerability to them. Perhaps, ultimately, I would have liked an occasional touch of steel in Chartin's voice, but this was an account of Cleopatra which certainly seduced, fascinated and engaged.

Catherine Hopper looked strikingly like the actress Geraldine James as Cornelia, making her dignified and serious, characterised by a very moving acceptance at first and then an intense anguish under Tolomeo's attacks in part two. Her duet with Heather Lowe's Sesto, at the end of Act One, was quite low key but all the more moving in its simplicity.

Heather Lowe's Sesto was quite light voices, which highlighted the character's youth. I felt that perhaps Tim Albery was less interested in Sesto than some characters, and there was less sense of Sesto's personal journey to growing up. But Heather Lowe drew a fine picture of a young man adrift in a complex work.

James Laing's Tolomeo (a role Laing sang when the production was new) was wonderfully vicious and delightfully evil (and not a bit camp, thank goodness). During the overture we saw him killing Pompey (rather than getting a henchman to do it), and when Lucie Chartin's Cleopatra teasingly flirted with him in Act One, Laing's TOlomeo responded in a way which suggested that the Ptolomaic dynasty's liking for incest was still strong. There was nothing effete about this Tolomeo, he was vicious and dangerous.

Darren Jeffrey made a strong Achilla, with Paul-Antoine Benos-Djian and Dean Robinson providing strong support as Nireno and Curio.

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Lucie Chartin, Maria Sanner - Opera North 2019 (Photo Alastair Muir)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Lucie Chartin, Maria Sanner - Opera North 2019 (Photo Alastair Muir)
In the pit, the orchestra of Opera North acquitted itself stylishly under Christian Curnyn's deft direction. The string sound was perhaps a little fuller than for a period ensemble, but the results were crisp and engaging with some fine solo contributions.

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