Thursday 12 April 2018

Handel's Giulio Cesare from Early Opera Company at London Handel Festival

Handel: Giulio Cesare, first edition of July 1724 printed by Cluer and Creake
Handel: Giulio Cesare, first edition of July 1724
printed by Cluer and Creake
Handel Giulio Cesare; Tim Mead, Anna Devin, Hilary Summers, Rachel Kelley, Rupert Enticknap, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn; London Handel Festival at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 April 2018
Star rating: 5.0 
Handel's great opera in a concert performance full of character and virtuosity

Whilst it is a truism that every performance of an opera is different, with an opera as long as George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare this is particularly the case as each production makes its own decisions about what to keep and what to omit. Christian Curnyn and Early Opera Company's performance of Giulio Cesare at St John's Smith Square on Wednesday 11 April 2018 as part of the London Handel Festival was the third outing of this opera in 12 months, each one very different. English Touring Opera included every aria and spread the performance over two nights [see my review], Bury Court Opera included as many arias as possible and trimmed the piece by removing B sections and Da Capo repeats [see my review], whereas Christian Curnyn followed the Charles Mackerras route [you can hear Mackerras's account on Chandos] and kept the integrity of the arias but removed 'lesser' ones to keep the running time to 3 hours 30 minutes (including one interval after the opening scene of Act Two).

Curnyn and Early Opera Company fielded a very strong cast, with Tim Mead as Giulio Cesare, Anna Devin as Cleopatra, Hilary Summers as Cornelia, Rachel Kelly as Sesto, Rupert Enticknap as Tolomeo, Callum Thorpe as Achilla and James Hall as Nireno. Interestingly, the last time I saw Curnyn and Early Opera Company performing Giulio Cesare (probably 20 years ago) was at St John's Smith Square, but that time Hilary Summers played the title role!

This was very much a concert performance, the orchestra was centre stage and we were greeted by a forest of music stands. But the cast members, whilst using scores, were not welded to them and each gave a distinctive performance, creating a sense of real character. Whilst there was no space for physical interactions, there were plenty of small details in individual performances to bring out character so this account of the opera was not just about fine singing (of which there was plenty), but text and narrative too. The opera was sung in Italian and we were provided with a printed text, Brian Trowell's translation was used (which features on the Mackerras recording), a fine singing version but perhaps not ideal for a printed translation when a more accurate rendering of the Italian might be preferable.
Tim Mead made a very confident and dynamic Giulio Cesare, with a great sense of dominance and capability. Mead brought out a very great interaction with the text, so that we were aware of the growing drama of this capable military man in the trammels of love. Technically very strong, the range of the role seems to suit him well (there was little in the way of alarming transpositions in the Da Capo ornaments), and we got a beautiful messa di voce (very much a trademark of the original Cesare, Sensino) on the opening note of his opening aria in Act Three, and the preceding accompagnato was very fine, as was Cesare's other accompagnato in Act One musing on the death of Pompey. Despite these thoughtful moments, we had bravura too and his Act Two aria (after the Parnassus scene) was a complete delight and a wonderful way to end the first half of the evening.

Anna Devin made a strong and complex Cleopatra and it is a role I would love to hear her play on stage. From the outset she was a vibrant and capable woman, fully equally to standing up to her brother Tolomeo (Rupert Enticknap). Perhaps Devin's performance lacked a slight element of Winton Dean's 'sex kitten' but she certainly brought ravishing tone to bear in her Parnassus aria, 'V'adore pupille' with its surround aura of instruments (including the exotic viola da gamba and harp). Devin made the move from skittish, sexy and scheming to profound pain with a fine sense of transition, and both 'Piangero' and 'Per pieta' were highlights in an evening full of them. Devin has quite a strong, vibrant voice, this was no soubrette Cleopatra, yet she was equally capable of virtuoso bravura, really capturing the many sided nature of the part.

Cornelia is a difficult role, she has to spend so much time lamenting and sometimes she can come over as a kill-joy. Hilary Summers managed this difficult job superbly and rarely have I heard Cornelia sung in such a profound and moving way. Summers has quite a distinctive, rather direct sort of voice and she used this to great effect. You felt that this was a very open performance, and we seemed to feel Cornelia's pain directly and profoundly. She was ably paired with the stirring and dramatic Sesto of Rachel Kelly. Kelly brought out the young man's journey as he moved from naivety to action (in the final act Sesto finally kills Tolomeo). Kelly's made the arias stirring but poignant, a young man trying on an older man's shoes, whilst the duet for Kelly and Summers which closed Act One was intense indeed.

It was a pleasure to hear a performance of Tolomeo from Rupert Enticknap which had hardly a trace of camp and which brought out the character's virility and viciousness. Whether leering at Cornelia or thundering imprecations at Cesare and at Cleopatra, Enticknap's Tolomeo was a character sketch of a tyrant and he made a fine match for Mead's Cesare and Devin's Cleopatra.

Callum Thorpe made a virile Achilla, perhaps more sympathetic than some, with some nice bravura in this arias, whilst James Hall provided strong support as Nireno (without any of his arias).

This was a strong and satisfying performance, though a couple of slips suggested that rehearsal time had been short. Curnyn drew a fine performance from his orchestra, and Giulio Cesare is full of wonderful instrumental solo moments and here they were all delightfully taken.

This was one of those events where the time seemed to fly by, and such was the quality of the individual performances that I rather regretted that we could not have heard more of the opera. As a festival devoted to Handel's music, you feel that the London Handel Festival ought to find a way of giving us occasional performances of Handel's operas uncut (Sunday afternoon performances perhaps). But in the mean time, Christian Curnyn, Early Opera Company and his team gave us much to enjoy.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Concrete Dreams (★★★★)  - exhibition review
  • Britten, Bernstein, Moore, Sutherland, Chagall, Piper - Walter Hussey & his commissions (★★★★)  - Book review
  • Shedding light on Claude le Jeune's psalm settings (★★★½) - CD review
  • Journey to Nidaros: Alexander Chapman Campbell (★★★) - CD review
  • Fantasies can be dangerous: Mark-Anthony Turnage's Coraline (★★★) - opera review
  • Competitive edge: Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris and arias from Handel's Semele  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Labour of love: a new musical direction at Finchcocks - interview
  • Spellbinding: Anna Netrebko and Željko Lucic in Verdi's Macbeth - Royal Opera House Live Cinema (★★★★) - opera review
  • From wronged women to pastoral delight: Handel's Italian cantatas at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Mr Handel's Vauxhall Pleasures at the London Handel Festival (★★★★½) - concert review
  • This brand-new production of Verdi’s Falstaff proves how strong the subject-matter is and how highly entertaining the opera (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Planet Hugill’s roving music correspondent, Tony Cooper, reports on Berlin’s Festtage (★★★★) - concert review
  • Humanity, Energy and Poise: Bach's St John Passion at the Holy Week Festival (★★★★½)   - concert review
  • Atmosphere at the expense of text: Wednesday at St John's Holy Week Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • Home

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