Tim Albery’s critically acclaimed 2012 production of Handel’s Egyptian epic, Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) is just as thrilling in this latest revival from Opera North.
Handel’s original 1794 opera was a mammoth four-hours long. Here it is cut down to 3 hours 15 minutes with an interval. It doesn’t feel that long – largely because the tightening has enhanced the drama and tensions which drive the narrative forward. Christian Curnyn, one of the UK’s leading conductors specialising in the Baroque and Classical repertoire leads Opera North’s wonderful orchestra. And it is emotion all the way, as we journey from battles to glittering palaces with a spin of Leslie Travers’ simple and evocative rotating set.
Loosely based in historical fact, the opera begins with the murder of Pompeo and follows Julius Caesar’s time in Egypt along with the various warring and romantic conquests that ensue in a tale of politics, vengeance and desire.
Cleopatra and her brother, Tolomeo, are vying for the throne when Julius Caesar arrives in Egypt in pursuit of an enemy. Seeing the opportunity to tip the balance of power in her favour, Cleopatra seduces Caesar and a dangerous romance rapidly ensues.
Throwing us between desire and revulsion the actions switches between the passionate romance between Caesar and Cleopatra and the trials of Pompeo’s widow, Cornelia, subject to unwanted sexual harassment and abuse from both Achilla and Tolomeo. Counter-tenor, James Laing returns to the role of Tolomeo and is every inch the debauched villain, with seemingly no limits on either his appetite for violence, sex and coercive power.
Amy J Payne (who returns to The Lowry with Opera North next season in Street Scene) stood in for Catherine Hopper as Cornelia on Wednesday in an emotional performance, that was both defiant and vulnerable. Lucie Chartin joins the Company for the first time as Cleopatra. She sparkles on stage and her voice has a wonderful clarity that seduces everyone, not just Caesar.
Swedish contralto, Maria Sanner also makes her Opera North debut in the title role. Cesare’s arias suit a female voice and the duets between Sanner and Chartin are dreamy. However, there were some problems with the sound on Wednesday because the power of Sanner’s voice did not always come through and at times I was straining to hear her over the orchestra.
That aside, it is an excellent quality and accessible production that sweeps us up in drama and emotion.★ ★ ★ ★
Opera North is at The Lowry from 12-16 November 2019.