United Kingdom Handel, Giulio Cesare in Egitto: Soloists, Orchestra of the English National Opera, Christian Curnyn (conductor). The Coliseum, London, 1.10.2012 (MB)
(sung in English, as Julius Caesar)
Giulio Cesare: Lawrence Zazzo
Curio: George Humphreys
Cornelia: Patricia Bardon
Sesto: Daniela Mack
Cleopatra: Anna Christy
Tolomeo: Tim Mead
Achilla: Andrew Craig Brown
Nireno: James Laing
Fabulous Dance Theatre: Saju Hari, Karolina Kraczkowska, Johannes Langholf, Louise Mochia, Erik Nevin, Emmanuel Obeya, Keir Patrick, Rachel Poirier, Raquel Gulatero Soriano, Louise Tanoto
Michael Keegan-Dolan (director, choreography)
Andrew Lieberman (set designs)
Doey Luthi (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Julius Caesar returns to the Coliseum for its second production, succeeding that by John Copley, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras and with Dame Janet Baker in the title role. (It remains available in both CD and DVD.) There is much to enjoy, especially vocally, and though Michael Keegan-Dolan’s production is in some respects baffling, I doubt that it would prove unduly off-putting to anyone. Keegan-Dolan ultimately seems far more of a choreographer than a dancer. Opinions will doubtless differ on whether ‘interpretative’ dance of pretty much every number adds something or becomes wearisome. Some instances work better than others; though the work of Keegan-Dolan’s Fabulous Dance Theatre is very good on its own terms, some of the movement can nevertheless tend towards silliness. My concern is more that it tends to be a substitute for presenting a more fully-formed production, though doubtless advocates of the practice would claim that dance in itself is a perfectly acceptable form of operatic direction. Likewise images such as dead crocodiles and giraffes do not compensate for a clearer vision of what the opera might be about, or even what is happening. Too often, especially during the first act, the concern seems more to be to show off the bodies of dancers and singers – white vests and tight-fitting trousers do the trick – rather than to present a credible or even involving drama. Gun shots here and there are not really an adequate substitute for a Baroque sense of the fantastic.
That brings us to a more general problem involving Handelian opera seria. As Jonathan Keates put it in his programme note, ‘At the heart of Baroque opera lies an unresolved tension between past and present. On the one hand its preferred subject-matter offers us an idealised vision of classical antiquity … On the other lies a timeless world of intimate personal relationships, a private, confessional universe where ordinary emotions – rage, desire, jealousy, remorse – expose these very same heroes and heroines to our scrutiny as ordinary men and women.’ In a sense, that approaches the problem many of us continue to experience with Handel’s operas at least. There seems little real interest in the ‘antique’ setting, but also little that enables us to relate to the characters as flesh and blood. Presumably that brings part of the motivation for a ‘different’, dance-based approach, but I cannot help but think that a more thorough-going re-imagination – call it Regietheater, if you will, but there is no especial need to confine oneself with the implications that may present – might have enabled us to care more about what was happening on stage.
Christian Curnyn’s resolutely vibrato-free approach will doubtless find many supporters. So does hanging! To me, it seemed a pity to spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar, since thin string tone detracted from what was for the most part a sensibly, attractively paced reading. Recitatives did not outstay their welcome, partly a matter of considerable pruning – a few arias had to go too – but more a matter of keen dramatic handling (pun unintentional). Recorders do not blend very well with modern strings, even when the latter are played so as to sound as close as possible to their forebears, but there was a great deal to relish in the splendid performance of the ENO Orchestra’s woodwind section. Some delicious oboe and bassoon playing brought to mind the instrumentation of Handel’s dramatic oratorios, Saul – the Witch of Endor scene – in particular. (If only we might see that staged – and of course benefit from the inspired choral writing, absent from Handel’s operas.)
Lawrence Zazzo offered a dazzling performance in the title role, tender moments every bit as impressive as quick-fire coloratura. Zazzo showed quite how far we have come from the days of counter-tenor hooting, even though I retain an heretical liking for transposition (remember Fischer-Dieskau), if only for the sake of vocal variety. Tim Mead’s venomously spitting Tolomeo proved an impressive foil. Though well sung, I am afraid I could not relate to Anna Christy’s Cleopatra in terms of vocal quality; the role seems to demand something richer than a soubrette. (Valerie Masterson on the Mackerras recording and still more so the wonderful Tatiana Troyanos for Karl Richter show how it can be done.) Daniela Mack’s Sesto was inexplicably portrayed as a girl – the programme actually has: ‘Sesto, daughter of Pompey and Cornelia’ – but Mack overcame that weird directorial handicap as impressively as one could have reason to expect. The situation was rendered all the more confusing by the counter-tenor-like voice of Patricia Bardon’s Cornelia. Following some unattractive scooping in her first aria, she recovered well, but I had to check the programme to assure myself that this was not a falsettist who looked uncommonly convincing in women’s clothes. It was a pity, if understandable for reasons of timing, that Andrew Craig Brown’s Achillas lost two out of his three arias, for in his first, he revealed a dark, dangerous voice eminently suited to the role, and of which I should be keen to hear more.
Brian Trowell’s 1978 English translation is a model of its kind. Leaving aside arguments as to whether translation might be necessary or even desirable in an age of surtitles, this vernacular version presents the words clearly, musically, and without drawing undue attention to itself. If the truth be told, translating Handel’s operas into English does relatively little harm; Handel writes similarly whether setting Italian or English, and this is not, to put it diplomatically, Mozart setting Da Ponte. As I mentioned above, however, I wonder whether ENO might consider staging the odd dramatic oratorio – by which, however, I certainly do not mean a revival of Deborah Warner’s misguided Messiah production.