Opera Reviews
20 April 2021
Untitled Document

A Giulio Cesare well worth seeing

by Catriona Graham

Handel: Giulio Cesare
Opera North

September 2019

Maria Sanner (Giulio Cesare)

Is there anyone who doesn’t know what Julius Caesar was up to in Egypt? Briefly, he is conquering the kingdom and absorbing it into the Roman empire. There are good economic and political reasons for so doing (if you are a Roman) though opera is not concerned with economics but emotions. And in Opera North’s revival of their 2012 production of Giulio Cesare by Handel, there is plenty of emotion, right from the start when the Egyptian general Achilla delivers the body of Cesare’s rival Pompeo. Achilla is well-smitten at first sight with the grieving widow Cornelia, whose son Sesto is already plotting revenge for his father’s murder.

It is a truth generally accepted that Cleopatra is a minx, and Lucie Chartin’s blonde-haired minx has a voice as intoxicating as your favourite cream liqueur. There is more than a little sibling rivalry for the throne between her and her brother Tolomeo, for all they are in matching royal blue outfits – which turn purplish in some lights. The citadel whose battlements they are first seen on revolves to reveal interiors. In the grand seduction scene, the set and costume designs of Leslie Travers and Thomas C. Hase’s lighting come into their own; the mirrored golden walls, the candle-light, the shimmering dress and the rippling water, together with that voice, provide a sensory overload for Marie Sanner’s war-wearied Cesare.

And wearied he is. Pompeo may have been his defeated rival, but Egyptians had no right to kill him. He is initially fooled into believing Cleopatra is her maid, and during his aria Se in fiorito ameno prato,to a violin solo as cheesy and delicious as a ripe gorgonzola, goes into ecstasies over her discarded stockings. But wicked brother Tolomeo has attacked the Roman army and Cesare must flee – only after Cleopatra has unmasked herself and sided with Cesare against her brother.

Meanwhile, Cornelia and Sesto have been captured by Tolomeo who has said Achilla can have Cornelia as a reward – but wants her for himself. James Laing catches how Tolomeo is the duplicitous sort of Handelian villain who never quite gets it. His end is fitting – his corpse spat on by his soldiers and hung upside-down. Darren Jeffery’s Achilla is a typical bluff army man, but even he has lines, and Tolomeo crosses them. Both Achilla and Tolomeo regard Cornelia as the spoils of war; Catherine Hopper invests her with quiet dignity and a steely resolve. The freshness and clarity of Heather Lowe’s voice suits the adolescent intensity of Sesto.

Keeping the plot-lines going are Cesare’s general Curio (Dean Robinson) and the Ptolemys’ servant Nireno (Paul-Antoine Bénos-Dijian), and a special mention too, for the slaves who variously stand guard and bear stretchers, fleshing out the realism in director Tim Albery’s vision.

With Christian Curnyn conducting some very nice playing as well as singing – Tolomeo and Achilla both resurrecting for the final chorus – this is a performance well worth seeing.

Text © Catriona Graham
Photo © Alastair Muir
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