Rare, abbreviated, yet superbly staged performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare from Opera North

17/11/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Giulio Cesare in Egitto: Orchestra members of Opera North / Christian Curnyn (conductor). The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 12.11.2019. (RJF)

Heather Lowe (Sesto), James Laing (Tolomeo) and Darren Jeffery (Achilla)
(c) Alastair Muir

Production:
Director – Tim Albery
Costume and Set designer – Leslie Travers
Lighting designer – Thomas C. Hase

Cast:

Romans
Giulio Cesare – Maria Sanner
Pompeo – Jem Dobbs
Curio – Dean Robinson
Cornelia – Amy Jane Payne
Sesto – Heather Lowe

Egyptians
Cleopatra – Lucie Chartin
Tolomeo – James Laing
Achilla – Darren Jeffery
Nireno – Paul-Antoine Bénos-Dijan

Outside of London, and occasionally Country House Opera, the opportunities for opera lovers to get to know Handel’s operas are few and far between. Certainly, the audience numbers at The Lowry were healthy for a genre little known, even to opera buffs. It helps when directors, as here, are aware of the situation, and one of the first matters they address is the choice of subject and then making its length palatable. In this series of performances of Tim Albery’s production, first seen in 2012, the matter of length is addressed and recitative and spoken dialogue is pared to give a little over three hours of music and sung entertainment. This timing compares with just over two hours for most complete popular works by Puccini and Verdi for example and four hours for this opera given in full. It comes down to the traditions of the time and what people looked – and were prepared to pay – for.

In this production Tim Albery and his designer have come up with a highly flexible set that is easily moved about to accommodate the scenes and situations as the story unfolds. At the start, the set appears as a bleak dark half pyramid that is quickly turned round to reveal more opulent living space, as enjoyed by rich ancient Egyptians. Costumes are of a later period than the story, indeed contemporary at times, and certainly not related to the premiere in 1724. High heels and haute couture feature, along with a more relevant battledress for Darren Jeffery’s Achilla.

The focus of the opera is the conflict between the ancient Rome and Egypt, and this is reflected, to a degree, in the costumes, albeit they have a more contemporary look particularly in the matter of footwear and high heels for the ladies. Whilst the conductor Christian Curnyn kept the volume of the period instruments under tight control, the mix of vocal fach – including particularly the male countertenor – were able to project words with clarity and without vocal strain. This later was particularly important for the likes of Maria Sanner as Cesare who brought out both the fighter and the lover with exceptional skill to match her slight, diminutive, figure. Lucie Chartin’s Cleopatra was a perfect picture of iron determination and tempting sexuality, her singing and characterisation created a complete portrayal. In the trouser role of Sesto, Heather Lowe, an RNCM graduate and pupil of the much-loved and highly respected Barbara Robotham, had an ideal voice across a wide range. James Laing was a malevolent looking Tolomeo, particularly when wearing the extended fingernails as he tried to look a bigger political hitter than he was. Darren Jeffery, another with RNCM connections, was a massive presence both physically and vocally as Achilla. An early star on the stage was Amy Jane Payne as Cornelia. A chorus member, she was called on to fill a vocal indisposition and exhibited singing and acting without fault, evidence of thorough preparation of principals and covers, and this despite the sexual molestation the role has to endure from the predatory Tolomeo early on in the opera.

Robert J Farr

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