Handel: Julius Caesar

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 3 October 2012 4 stars

Julius CaesarHändel’s Julius Caesar at the English National Opera is exciting theatre – not least because of the magnificent dancing of the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre – but the production may need some getting used to. I attended the dress rehearsal and was deeply unhappy with the concept. Dancing seemed to have taken priority over the singing; the latter at times appeared to be more an accompaniment to dancing than the essence of the opera. However, by the first night I was more tuned in to what some audience members described as an ‘alternative’ approach. In spite of vivid memories of ENO’s legendary 1979 John Copley production, the musicality and virtuosity of the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre has won me over.

Nevertheless, some nagging concerns prevail. In the large scheme of things it may not matter but it is far from clear why Sesto Pompeo, son of the murdered Pompey and his widow Cornelia, has turned into a girl; that is, into a daughter in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s staging. It is true that Händel wrote the part of Sesto for soprano Margherita Durastanti but female voices singing male characters was not uncommon either in Händel’s operatic output or in other composers’ operas. The heroic girl Sesto makes Cleopatra’s fighting spirit look more like a normal feminine attribute rather than a quality unique to Cleopatra. This would be fine but Keegan-Dolan makes the girls in Ptolemy’s harem totally downtrodden (Act II), with none of the girls indicating the slightest wish to resist. It is also odd that immediately after killing her father’s murderer, the girl Sesto becomes an elegant woman. Before the killing that is through most of the long opera she wears some black and white girlish attire with no particular hair –style. After the killing, Sesto turns into a sophisticated woman with a beautiful long yellow dress and with her hair pinned up in a mature style. Does Keegan –Dolan suggest that maturity is reached via revenge?

Keegan-Dolan’s overall concept is more problematic. His staging of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the English National Opera in the autumn of 2009 was fully appropriate. The strong rhythmic sense and dramatic physicality of his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre enhanced the story line of Stravinsky’s ballet. But in Julius Caesar, more often than not the singing is relegated to the background. One could argue that Keegan-Dolan’s choreography expresses and even enhances Händel’s music. However, directing the audience’s attention to well–planned and powerful dancing –while the principal singers deliver their virtuoso arias standing still – is questionable. On the other hand, when choreography as musical and expressive as that of Keegan–Dolan’s for Julius Caesar is applied, the overall effect can be powerful.

I miss the great many colours that stage director John Copley and his design team provided for their legendary production in 1979. In this opera Händel’s music is particularly colourful: apart from the customary strings, oboes and bassoons, Händel also includes a flute, recorders, four horns, trumpets, harp, viola da gamba and theorbo. In Copley’s production the orchestral colours were matched by colours on the stage. Valerie Masterson – ENO’s 1979 Cleopatra – had seven or more costume changes; all costumes colourful and regal, as befitting a queen. But Keegan-Dolan’s show, hence Doey Lüthi’s costume design, is largely black and white. Initially everybody is in white until Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy appear in grey on the top and white on the bottom. Cornelia arrives in black, Sesto in black and white. Later Cleopatra is either in full black or in full white. These two colours dominate throughout.

The set design (by Andrew Liebermann) is equally sparse; baroque grandeur is not even hinted at. Visual aspects—or the lack of them—seem to be directing focus to the intricate dramatic movements of Keegan-Dolan’s Fabulous Beast dancers. They in turn are spell binding in their physicality and, I hasten to add, musicality. Clearly they know Händel’s music intimately.Some elements jar with what is presumably the overall vision of expressing music with movement alongside singing. For instance, a crocodile is disemboweled, the tongue of a dead giraffe is pulled out, and Ptolemy’s slave girls are gagged. And buckets of blood are thrown about. Yet surely we understand from the words of Haym’s libretto (in English translation by Brian Trowell) as well as from Händel’s music that cruelty is ever present. Ironically, what may have been planned as shocking images caused many in the audience to laugh. Or perhaps the eggs of a dead crocodile and the tongue of a dead giraffe were meant to be funny.It is not entirely clear whether the opening and closing chorus numbers were signed for the hard of hearing or whether the chorus delivered choreography intended for them. But what was clear is that the chorus consisted of the dancers and the principal singers. They sang and moved together; they sounded and looked united.

The vocal difficulties in this opera are considerable. Virtuosity is taken for granted and deep emotions are invested in many of the arias. Lawrence Zazzo (Caesar) is fully convincing vocally as well as dramatically but Anna Christy (Cleopatra) is more equipped for the virtuoso elements than for the sensual dimension. Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) and Tim Mead (Ptolemy) were outstanding in terms of both innate musicality and imposing stage presences. Soprano Daniela Mack (Sesto) cannot be faulted but I missed the strong lower registers of mezzo Della Jones from the 1979 production. Conductor Christian Curnyn clearly knows and loves the score. Ironically, occasionally less warmth would have been justified. For instance, Caesar’s hunting song with the horn obligato (Act I) was beautiful, rocking and gentle. But the harshness of hunting was not evident. However, in spite of having Sir Charles Mackerras’s 1979 Julius Caesar interpretation ingrained in my brain, I thoroughly enjoyed Curnyn’s rendering of the whole opera. One cannot pay a higher compliment to a Händel conductor.

By Agnes Kory

Photos: Robert Workman