Saturday 20 October 2012

Julius Caesar at the London Coliseum

ENO: Julius Caesar, Lawrence Zazzo and Fabulous Beast (c) Robert Workman
ENO: Julius Caesar, Lawrence Zazzo and Fabulous Beast
(c) Robert Workman

I have to confess that I was rather nervous of the idea of Michael Keegan-Dolan’s new Julius Caesar at the London Coliseum. By the time we saw the production (Friday 20 October) there had been enough reviews out for me to have my prejudices confirmed. In the event, I found the performance completely engrossing and one of the most stimulating performances of a Handel opera that I have seen in a long time. Though UK opera houses admirably perform Handel’s opera serias, there is a tendency to fill the stage with business, whether from fear of the large open spaces of Handel’s scores with their long arias, or simply from a need to keep the audience entertained. To get straightforward, direct productions you have to go smaller companies such as English Touring Opera where James Conway has produced an admirable series of Handel’s opera seria. Of course there was nothing strictly simple about Keegan-Dolan’s new Julius Caesar.

Andrew Lieberman’s set was a fixed, plain wood structure with a fixed curved back-drop which would have gone a long way towards helping vocal projection in the large spaces of the London Coliseum. Lieberman has created a series of raised platforms which filled the stage and on which most of the action took place, with the gaps between them being used for entrance, exit and other activities. Doey Luthi’s costumes were generally plain white, loosely modern. There was no attempt to place the piece in an historical period. This was taking place on the stage, now.

Keegan-Dolan is a choreographer; he provided the choreographer for David Alden’s famous production of Ariodante at the Coliseum. His cast included the eight soloists plus ten dancers; there was no chorus. For the opening (and closing) choruses everyone (singers and dancers) joined together to sing. When Lawrence Zazzo’s Julius Caesar entered, the dancers started dancing whilst he sang. I have to confess that my heart sank.

But apart from this opening scene, and the odd moment later on, when the dancing was too frenetic and distracting, what was remarkable about Keegan-Dolan’s vision of the piece was how little dancing there was at times. This was not a through-choreographed ballet, Keegan-Dolan used movement sympathetically. I  was surprised and delighted at how much stillness there was. Unlike many directors, Keegan-Dolan was not frightened of having little or no movement on stage, and sometimes the movement would be a simple change of position for the dancers.

His choreography was quite illustrative at times, as if the dancers were signing. The results were extremely expressive and seemed to come out of the music rather than being applied to it.

Having been annoyed at the use of choreography in previous Handel opera seria productions, I was curious about my positive reaction to this. I think it was because Keegan-Dolan’s intentions were quite serious, he wasn’t out to keep us entertained, but to express the music. Perhaps some of the difference came from having a choreographer direct, rather than creating choreography to suit another director’s vision. Whatever the reasons, the results were engrossing and expressive. Even when the dancers were moving a lot, the singers were allowed to sing and express themselves freely, but without a feeling of needing to keep doing something.

Not everything was perfect; I’d defy anyone to stage nearly three hours of music and not annoy someone at some point or other. There were moments when the dance was too frenetic, and some of Keegan-Dolan’s stage effects were over the top. But the audience titter factor was surprisingly low; there were only one or two occasions which got an inappropriate laugh; a testament, surely, to the fundamental seriousness of the enterprise.

The general theme of the performance was the idea of Caesar as hunter, with bodies of a crocodile and a giraffe on stage, both of which were dismembered with much blood. To taunt Cornelia (Patricia Bardon), Ptolemy (Tim Mead) even pulled the tongue out of the giraffe. There was a lot (rather too much) blood. There was also a sub-theme of the eggs produced by the Crocodile, both as supreme prize and as something for Ptolemy to use for polo practice.

ENO: Julius Caesar, Anna Christy and Fabulous_Beast (c) Robert Workman
ENO: Julius Caesar, Anna Christy and Fabulous_Beast
(c) Robert Workman
It helped that Keegan-Dolan had a very strong cast and he got some superb performances from his singers. Most of the singing was down-stage, ensuring that the singers was as close as possible to the audience, which aided communication and power.

Lawrence Zazzo was a powerful and engaging Julius Caesar. There was much play with the idea of Caesar as hunter, with Zazzo sporting a pair of cowboy boots and even, in his scene with Tim Mead’s Ptolemy, a ten gallon hat. At times these props did go rather far. But Zazzo brought it off, the idea of the brash American incomer hunting and trampling over the locals.

The role was written for the alto castrato Senesino, and Senesino did not have a wide range and used the extremes of his range rarely. The compass fits a counter-tenor neatly, but I have always wondered how the castrato voice handled the passaggio. It seems that the way the role is written does not always suit the way counter-tenor voice is organised, particularly with regard to the passaggio. If you can find the right female contralto, then the result can often be more convincing when sung at Handel's pitches (Janet Baker transposed sections of the role up to suit her voice).

It is a testament to Zazzo’s skill, and his power at filling the Coliseum, that I was rarely worried about these issues. There were a few moments when his voice did not quite project as it should, but these were only small. Zazzo projected some fabulous high, bright timbres, but also could fine his voice down. His account of Caesar’s brilliant, more aggressive numbers was impressive and convincing with some fine, trumpet tones. He was also lovely, in the quieter numbers when he was in love. And the aria at the start of act 3, when he is washed up on the shore, was simply mesmerizing, with Zazzo singing most of it lying on his back. This was one of the best performances that I have seen from Zazzo.

As regards Caesar’s relations with Cleopatra, it helped that Anna Christy’s Cleopatra was no pneumatic airhead. In act 1 she projected a sharp angularity of character. Her arias in this act might be joyous, but it was clear that Christy’s Cleopatra was not someone to mess with.

Christy does not have a luscious voice, it is bright and focussed but not small; she had no trouble filling the Coliseum. There was something almost old-fashioned (in a good way) about her focus and projection. This meant, that when fascinating Caesar she had to work a bit. The Parnassus scene at the opening of act 2 was perhaps one of the weakest in the opera. We did have the solo instruments from the band on-stage, in silhouette behind a curtain. But Christy was forced to sing the aria into a microphone like a cabaret singer, whilst dancer with wings moved around on-stage. I don’t think this allowed Christy to be as lusciously fascinating as she has the potential to be, and feel the scene should be re-thought a little when the production comes back.

But when being joyous or being sad, as acts two and three progressed, Christy was movingly impressive. She managed to capture the character’s infinite variety. Per pieta was profoundly moving, especially has Christy had had to suffer an alarming number of indignities perpetrated on her by Tim Mead’s Ptolemy.

It was a great relief to find that Tim Mead was not playing Ptolemy as effete and effeminate; a reading which has developed alarming currency. It helped that Mead was able to sing more of Ptolemy’s arias than in the John Copley/Charles Mackerras version of the opera previously performed here.

Instead, Mead was a floppy haired psychopath, scarily demented and intense. It was in Mead’s scenes that Keegan-Dolan had a tendency to go too far, with Ptolemy playing with a polo stick, having female dancers’ mouths taped up, taunting Cornelia (Patricia Bardon) with a dismembered giraffe’s head and that tongue, torturing Christy’s Cleopatra by strangling her, smothering her, covering her in sand and in water.

But it worked, despite the odd titter, because Mead was so convincingly intense. Here was a young man who you believed would have someone’s head cut off with very little thought. This was a great performance which brought back the variety and different colourations to the character. It helped that he got to perform Ptolemy’s arioso at the end of act 2, which is often cut.

Patricia Bardon’s performance as Cornelia was made all the more poignant and touching by the fact that the singer looked young and glamorous in the role. This was no dowdy dowager, but a still good looking woman pole-axed by her grief at her husband’s murder and the unwanted attentions of Achillas (Andrew Craig Brown). Bardon produced some of the finest Handel singing of the evening, giving us acres of beautiful tone and finely moulded phrases. Cornelia spends a lot of time moping, but Bardon’s performance ensured that we were engaged all the time.

Her duet with Daniela Mack (Sesto) was one of the high points of the evening. Mack was a name new to me. She played Sesto as a daughter rather than a son, but given that we were in some unspecified modern location this worked well; and meant that we were not given the distraction of an unconvincing performance as a man. Mack benefited from the edition of the opera that conductor Christian Curnyn used, losing only one of her arias. This meant that we were able to see the character develop and allowed Mack to give us some vividly brilliant singing in Sesto’s revenge arias, particularly the one which closes act 2.

The smaller roles all came off worse in the allocation of arias. No aria for Nireno (James Laing), only one for Achillas (Andrew Craig Brown). Craig Brown sang his aria with a nice intensity and convinced us of the character’s odd combination of murderous instincts and desire for Cornelia, making him suitably creepy. Laing and George Humphreys (Curio) both provided strong support.

To keep the running time down to a reasonable length (3 hours 45 minutes including two intervals) Curnyn and Keegan-Dolan cut much of the recitative, pruning it down to the sort of brevity which Handel used in his later opera serias. This meant that Curnyn only cut five arias, which was a great bonus. Allowing the singers to develop their characters through the arias as Handel intended.

In this they were brilliantly supported and aided by Keegan-Dolan’s choreography and the performances of his dancers (Saju Hari, Karolina Kraczkowska, Johannes Langolf, Louise Mochia, Raquel Gualtero Soriano, Louise Tanoto). As I have said, Keegan-Dolan was not frightened to use stillness as well as movement. There was one or two notable moments when, the dancers would stop and listen to the music, before re-starting. This gave the sense that they were interacting with the singers, and in one aria Anna Christy was clearly directing some of the aria at them as they stopped to listen to her. Then in the closing scene, all stopped to listen to the spectacular high horn part. Keegan-Dolan often started an aria by just choreographing the ritornellos, with one or two dancers, gradually bringing more dancers on and increasing the amount of dancing as the aria progressed. Almost in parallel with the way Handel repeats and develops the music.

One of the great virtues of this production was the sense that Keegan-Dolan was staging the music rather than the libretto. In this he was aided by the dancers who seemed to be constantly attuned to what was happening in the score, whether they were moving or not. The resulting performance was intense, and profoundly moving.

Christian Curnyn used a large-ish band, with a continuo group including harpsichord and theorbo, along with a second orchestra harpsichord. He drew some very fine playing from the ENO orchestra with some lovely solo playing and very notable horn solos. Frankly, for long periods of time you simply forgot that they were an opera house orchestra playing on modern instruments, and simply appreciated the performance.

This was an intensely serious production, one which sought to illuminate the opera via dance and did not try and talk down to the audience by providing entertainment during the arias. The result was profoundly involving and very moving. I surprised myself by finding it one of the finest performances of a Handel opera seria that I have seen in a long time.

The house was distressingly quiet, suggesting that audiences have not yet warmed to Keegan-Dolan’s approach. I hope that they do as I want ENO to revive this production again soon, and to allow the choreographer loose on one of Handel’s other operas.

Elsewhere on this blog
Interview with Patricia Bardon

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