Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Look at Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Look at Life

Article excerpt

Giulio Cesare

Opera North, on tour until 16 March

Die Meistersinger

Royal Opera, Birmingham

Giulio Cesare was the first of Handel's operas to return to general favour after more than a century and a half of neglect, and I suppose that it is still the most frequently performed. That isn't surprising, since its plot is, by Handelian standards, simplicity itself, and the level of inspiration in the arias is astonishingly high. There is a problem with it, at least in the UK at the moment, and that is that David McVicar's Glyndebourne production of 2005 has been so widely and wildly acclaimed, and distributed, that new productions are bound to be seen in its shadow. As one of the very few people who thought that McVicar committed an act of treachery with regard to Cesare, I looked forward to Tim Albery's new production for Opera North with high hopes, which were partially fulfilled.

It shouldn't be a problem that Cesare alternates or mixes pathos and comedy with unusual thoroughness. The trouble is that most dramatic works don't. Handel and his librettist Haym achieve in Cesare a balanced look at heroism, erotic love, friendship, betrayal, ambition and vengeance which hardly has its equal outside the writings of Samuel Johnson, Handel's near-contemporary - and what an incomparable commentator he would have been on Cesare if he had had the least appreciation of music! McVicar turned the opera into a mere romp, so that, for instance, Cleopatra's heart-breaking arias of bereavement and desolation were reduced to petulance and foot-stamping frustration. Albery has steered well clear of that crassness, but he hasn't found anything much in the work, not nearly as much as I had expected and as is surely there waiting to be presented and explored. The opera, in Leeds, left a strangely neutral impression, as though a vivid oil painting had been tastefully reproduced as a watercolour.

The sets promised something, though it wasn't obvious what. To begin with we had a side of a pyramid, with a door in it, grim and grey. That was pushed round later to reveal a gaudy but obscure interior, with random flashes of light: baffling. Costumes, as one takes for granted, are contemporary. So the piece is given little atmosphere, and the performers have to establish not only character but also rank, relationship, and so on. Not all of them did.

The opera has two main interconnected plots, the first that of the affair between Cesare and Cleopatra, the second that of the murdered and desecrated Pompeo's widow Cornelia and son Sesto, striving both to stay alive and to avenge the treatment Tolomeo meted out to Pompeo. …

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