Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Giulio Cesare/ Dardanus

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Giulio Cesare/ Dardanus

Article excerpt

Previously on Giulio Cesare... English Touring Opera's new season caters cannily to the box-set generation by chopping Handel's Egyptian power-and-politics opera in two, playing each half on consecutive evenings as edge-of-your-seat instalments in a sort of baroque House of Cards. Will Cleopatra outwit her wicked brother? Will she and Cesare ever get together? Will Sesto ever stop dithering and do the deed? Tune in tomorrow night to find out.

If that sounds like the kind of pacy, racy entertainment you've always longed for in the opera house, be warned; this is Giulio Cesare: the Director's Cut, doggedly and absolutely complete, down to every last recitative, aria and interlude. By way of a bonus feature, ETO has also thrown in a massive repeat -- a sort of dramatic da capo that reprises the final 45 minutes of Part I: The Death of Pompey as the start of Part II: Cleopatra's Needle, with only minor directorial variation. It's a misstep that seems either cynical (we'll get them to pay twice for one show) or cowardly (no one will bother coming to both parts, so we'd better bring them thoroughly up to date), and one that strains both cast and audience unnecessarily. A case of Don't Carry On Cleo.

That being said, this is still one of the best shows we've seen in ages from ETO -- England's Little Opera Company That Could, which works miracles within the difficult constraints of a small budget and a large tour. Cordelia Chisholm's set (which also houses Rameau's Dardanus, this season's companion opera) is a handsome, adaptable affair. Gilded walls, sliding panels and endless doors give the cast plenty to play with, and serve as an antique picture frame to the 18th-century action that takes place within, gorgeously costumed in turquoise and gold.

Director James Conway makes no obvious political or dramatic capital from this setting -- we could be in 18th-century Chatsworth or 21st-century Chiang Mai, for all it matters -- preferring to focus on the emotional interplay of his characters. Here he benefits from a cast who give him plenty of light and shade, from Soraya Mafi's quick-witted, piquant Cleopatra -- revealing unexpected depths in both 'Se pietà' and 'Piangerò' -- and Catherine Carby's Cornelia, stoic and quietly ferocious, to Kitty Whately's traumatised Sesto. If Christopher Ainslie's Cesare (efficiently, if a little mono-chromatically sung) remains a cipher, it only serves to tip the opera's sensitive power dynamic further in favour of this irresistible Cleopatra. …

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