Julius Caesar in Helsinki – Superb Singing, Controversial Concept

FinlandFinland Handel, Julius CaesarHelsinki Baroque Orchestra in cooperation with the Finnish National Opera Orchestra, soloists, Howard Arman (conductor), Finnish National Opera, Helsinki. 20.1.2012 (GF)

Director: Ville Saukkonen
Lighting Design: Patrick Woodroffe
Costumes and Props: Kalle Kuusela
Assistant Lighting Designer: Adam Bassett

Franco Fagioni: Julius Caesar (Giulio Cesare)
Marko Nykänen: Curius
Katarina Leoson: Cornelia
Melis Jaatinen: Sextus
Claire Meghnagi: Cleopatra
Alon Harari: Ptolemy
Jussi Merikanto: Achillas
Arto Hosio: Nirenus

Claire Heghnagi as Cleopatra in Julius Caeasar Photo © Heikki Tuuli and Finnish National Opera


When the Finnish National Opera presents their first ever Handel opera they shun traditional sets and go for lighting effects and some sparse props – and the changing of scenes is limited to an often inventive use of the stage machinery, raising and/or lowering sections of the stage floor. It is quite often a beautiful production, although occasionally a little weird and at times even disgusting. The costumes are neither period – well, what period? – nor modern, and fanciful creations mix with strict business suits. The programme book indicates ’48 B.C. in Egypt’ but there isn’t a pyramid or a sphinx within sight. In the opening scene there is some waving with palm leaves to celebrate Caesar’s victory over Pompey, so some local colour is present. But the men of war wear modern camouflage uniforms and brandish machineguns and pistols, some prisoners in yellow overalls are taken to camp reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. In fact, the whole production is on one level a strong protest against war, which towards the end of the evening culminates in large photographic pictures of war scenes projected on an enormous screen, followed by hundreds of TV newscasters from all around the world giving war reports. The purpose is no doubt justifiable, but it could be argued that the juxtaposition of ancient times and the present doesn’t work all that well. To complicate matters further, part of this production is quite comical – even hilariously funny at times. Cleopatra swimming in a pool with two crocodiles, Ptolemy in a fancy uniform complete with Napoleonic hat (OK, I knew Napoleon was in Egypt), not to mention Caesar and two comprimarios juggling with big red balloon hearts when the Emperor falls in love with Cleopatra. The parody goes a step too far for my taste, but to be fair, many of the serious scenes are also taken very seriously. I had mixed feelings during the course of the evening, though – hence these remarks. No surprise, then that some booing was aimed at the director during the curtain calls.

My reaction to the singing, however, is not ambivalent in the least. With an international cast of young singers, an experienced conductor and the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra in the pit, this was historically authentic music making. Maybe the Helsinki strings were not as crisp as some other ensembles I have heard and the solo horn was out of sorts in the obligato solo in one of Caesar’s arias, but otherwise there was much to admire. The martial music in the last act was played with frenzy and apart from some shaky ensemble playing there was little to object to.

Melis Jaatinen (in background) and Franco Fagioli-Photo © Heikki Tuuli and Finnish National Opera

The solo singing was superb. Both Caesar and Cleopatra have enormous amounts of music to sing, long arias which are technically challenging, and it is easy to lose focus towards the end of a this protracted opera, but no: the concluding duet was as perfect as anything that had been heard earlier. Buenos Aires born counter-tenor Franco Fagioli has made Handel roles his speciality at many of the world’s opera houses. He has a beautiful voice, with enough power to carry even in a rather large hall, and his coloratura technique is fabulous. This also goes for the Israeli soprano Claire Meghnagi, who is a marvellous actor as well. Ptolemy was sung by a fellow countryman, counter-tenor Alon Harari, with fluent technique and good acting. Swedish mezzo Katarina Leoson was a noble and tragic Cornelia and all her solos were highlights in this well-sung performance. Of the home-grown singers, Melis Jaatinen as Sextus sported a much brighter mezzo than his mother Cornelia’s darker contralto. (The young man Sextus is sung by a woman while Cleopatra’s confidante is sung by a baritone wearing female clothes. Baroque opera can be a bit confusing…) Marko Nykänen, Jussi Merikanto and Arto Hosio were also excellent.

I admire this production unreservedly for all of the outstanding singing, and although I am still in two minds about the staging, this Julius Caesar is well worth a visit to Finnish National Opera.

Göran Forsling