(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 7 October 2017)
2018 is shaping up to be the Year of Cesare. Three different productions of Handel’s Giulio Cesare are on my radar, each within a manageable distance of London. With this in mind, I wanted to belatedly post my thoughts on the forerunner to this embarrassment of riches: English Touring Opera’s ambitious two-part production, which descended on the Hackney Empire back in October for a weekend of intrigue, desire, conquest and general skulduggery. Visually splendid, with a dazzling Cleopatra, it was weakened only by the eccentric splitting of the opera. But I’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, rally your legions, let the sand sink into your sandals, and imagine yourself back in Alexandria in 48 BC…
What Rome wants, Rome gets. As the powerful Cesare (Christopher Ainslie) arrives in Egypt, the squabbling sibling rulers of this fading empire scramble for his favour. Young Tolomeo (Benjamin Williamson) aims to win his friendship by presenting him with a gift: the severed head of Cesare’s enemy Pompey, who’d sought sanctuary in Egypt. Unfortunately for Tolomeo, his present arrives at the very moment Cesare is trying to be gracious to Pompey’s wife (and unwitting widow) Cornelia (Catherine Carby) and her young son Sesto (Kitty Whately). Embarrassed by the temerity of this barbarian king – who dares to execute a consul of Rome – Cesare proclaims himself Tolomeo’s enemy. Matters couldn’t have worked out better for Tolomeo’s older sister Cleopatra (Soraya Mafi), who plans to supplant him on the throne. With the aid of her servant Nireno (Thomas Scott-Cowell), she comes to Cesare in disguise as a damsel in distress, using her own wiles upon him to remarkably better effect. Thus, the battle lines are drawn.
While kings and queens sharpen their swords, a subplot concerns Pompey’s widow Cornelia. Deprived of her husband, she is also taken prisoner along with her son by the perfidious Tolomeo. His general Achilla (Benjamin Bevan), is promptly smitten by the elegant Roman matron, and hopes to win her as his wife in return for his services. In fact, Cornelia also has another (more discreet) admirer in the form of Cesare’s right-hand man Curio (Frederick Long). Never was a woman so inundated with suitors within five minutes of her husband’s murder. Unsurprisingly, Cornelia just wants to be left alone to mourn Pompey and to nurture her desire for revenge. The whole episode also has a powerful effect on her son Sesto, who grows from awkward boy to sworn avenger, spurred on by the flattering attentions of the beautiful ‘Lydia’ (Cleopatra in disguise), who sees that his fury could work to her advantage, and promises to help him.
So far, so standard. English Touring Opera decided to split the opera in two, so that they could present the entire thing without over-taxing audiences. This naturally required subtitles for the two parts, so Part I was The Death of Pompey and Part II was Cleopatra’s Needle (not, alas, the irresistibly fitting The Empire Strikes Back). Having sat through a five-hour treatment of German adultery (aka Tristan), I really don’t see a problem with four hours of Egyptian romance and murder with nice costumes, but maybe that’s just me. In principle, it’s quite nice to go along for a matinee and evening show which, taken together, tell one long and intricate story.
What narked me, however, was the way in which the opera was partitioned. Throughout the tour, the two parts are sometimes performed on adjacent nights and sometimes together as a matinee and evening show, as I saw it. An average audience should be able to hold the plot in their minds for that long. However, ETO decided to replay the last half an hour of Part I at the beginning of Part II: a bizarre choice rendered even more unnecessary by the addition of ‘Previously in…’ reminders put up on the surtitles. All it meant, for us, was that (due to the overrunning of Part I) we had no time to finish our dinner and had to rush back, only to sit through exactly the same action we’d just seen. In fact, with the repetition taken out, there isn’t really enough to warrant a whole second part. I can’t help thinking it would have been more sensible just to start a bit earlier in the evening and do the whole thing in one go.
Anyway. That’s my only real gripe and it’s now out of the way. As you all know by now, there are four things on which I judge an opera: the story and the music are, obviously, not an issue here, which leaves the setting and the singers. As our conqueror du jour, Christopher Ainslie made a fine Cesare: I’d heard him before, as Joseph in Joseph and his Brethren, but this was my first chance to hear him tackle some proper opera seria. He’s an elegant singer, graceful and expressive, with excellent dramatic instincts. I just wish he’d had a little more power behind his voice, which sometimes sounded a bit quiet from the dress circle. But he performed very well. This Cesare was a charmer, a swordsman (he ran through some fencing drill during Al Lampo dell’ Armi) and clearly a regular at the senators’ gym (if the state of his torso post-‘drowning’ was anything to go by). The only thing which didn’t quite convince me was his adoration for Cleopatra, but perhaps that was deliberate. After all, dictator and queen are both profoundly political people and their love is as much policy as passion.
At this distance in time, I’m afraid I can’t recall the finer details of the rest of the cast (save Soraya Mafi, whom I’ll come to in a moment), so I’ll have to be brief. Suffice it to say that Benjamin Williamson made a wonderfully brattish Tolomeo: his voice was occasionally a little insecure, but the role is made or broken by dramatic expressiveness, and Williamson had that in spades. I remember being impressed by Kitty Whately’s Sesto, her voice beautifully controlled, giving a convincing picture of this haunted young man coming to terms with his potential. Benjamin Bevan’s Achilla was powerfully sung, a tender thug whose mindless loyalty is undone by love; and, as his rival Curio, Frederick Long made a very good job of a role that, let’s face it, is rather minor. In fact, towards the end of the opera Curio’s main role is to be rescued by Cesare from drowning and then to lie limply, possibly in urgent need of resuscitation, while Cesare sings at length about what a difficult situation this is. Poor Curio.
I also enjoyed Thomas Scott-Cowell’s Nireno, which was more of an acting role than a singing role, as here he didn’t get to sing the rather fun Chi perde un momento, an aria added to the 1725 performance of Giulio Cesare and performed in the Glyndebourne version. However, he was a frequent visual presence, watchful and cautious, keeping a careful eye on his exuberant young mistress. Last, but by not means least, I should note Catherine Carby’s dignified and eloquent performance as Cornelia, a role that I always think is a bit of a poisoned chalice, because one has to spend the whole time moping around and being pawed at by insolent men. I loved Carby as Diana in Cavalli’s Calisto, in last year’s ETO season, and I thought her voice no less gorgeous here.
But the star of the show was Soraya Mafi. I hadn’t heard her in anything before and came with demanding expectations for Cleopatra as, of course, Danielle de Niese takes some beating. But Mafi did it. Effortlessly. I was first astonished by her voice: light, playful, clear, sumptuous, glittering its way through Handel’s complicated arias. And, more than that, she acted her socks off. Her Cleopatra, for me, had more nuance than de Niese’s: Mafi’s queen was smart, sharp and in a very dangerous position. There’s none of the tongue-in-cheek glamour-puss that de Niese gives us. Mafi was kittenish, certainly, and girlishly flirtatious, but at root her Cleopatra was an isolated and vulnerable young woman. That came to the fore after Cesare left her to fight Tolomeo’s uprising. Without her Roman protector, Cleopatra simply clung to his discarded coat, as if to an anchor in the middle of a storm (you see, even my similes are getting Baroque now). And yet she, like Cesare, seems to love wisely, but not too well. At the end, as Rome puts its stamp on Egypt, Cleopatra is there waiting, sharp-eyed, ready to make sure that she gets her cut of the spoils. I really liked this portrayal and I thought Mafi was fabulous: a one-woman five-star performance.
Regarding the aesthetics, I’d been hoping for something a little more elaborate than the usual modern-dress, stripped-back aesthetic that we often see in operas at the moment. I was thrilled when preview photos made it clear that the overall feel was very 18th century. The gentlemen wore velvet frock coats with lawn shirts and big cuffs, waistcoats, riding boots or buckled shoes. The Romans had unpowdered wigs tied in queues (only on the most formal occasions, in Cesare’s case), while Tolomeo had a delightfully over-the-top periwig. In keeping with the setting, Nireno’s role was changed from that of a favoured eunuch to that of Cleopatra’s confessor, dressed all in black with the little white collar and black cap of an abbé.
And the women, of course, were even more glamorous. Cornelia had an understated elegance in voluminous widow’s weeds, while Cleopatra’s wardrobe seemed to be made up of blue and gold: Egyptian royal colours. Her first dress was a dream, like something out of a Veronese fresco crossed with a Van Dyck fantasy; later she changed into a soft blue house-robe and she kept the blue-and-gold colour scheme even when, in a theatrical stroke of genius, she appears to to the dazzled Cesare as the Virgin Mary (adding a new irony to Cesare’s ‘Is this a goddess I see before me?’). The set itself was very simple and boxy, as befits something that has to be assembled and reassembled on a regular basis; but this worked perfectly as an Egyptian palace and, with the addition of golden lights and fluttering drapes, it conjured up the necessary blend of decadence and antiquity.
Giulio Cesare is my second-favourite Handel opera (after Xerxes, obviously) and I thought this was a truly wonderful production. I hope its historical flair delighted audiences outside London as much as it did those in the Hackney Empire on the night I went. And I hope that its success will encourage ETO to put on many more stagings with beautiful costumes and ambitious sets like this. As I said earlier, my only complaint is the odd repetition at the beginning of Part II. Perhaps next time ETO take on a Baroque opera, they can have faith in their audience and take us through the entire exhilarating, knotty, absorbing story in one fell swoop.