Nicola Haym’s libretto (in Italian, though the opera was first staged in London) makes enough sense, though major political and military developments are presented in personal terms: sibling rivalry or love unrequited or triumphant. Cesare (Julius Caesar) has pursued his rival Pompeo to Egypt where Tolomeo is disputing the throne with his sister Cleopatra. Tolomeo kills Pompeo to ingratiate himself with Cesare, but produces just the opposite result. Cesare and Cleopatra fall in love, Pompeo’s widow Cornelia and son Sesto swear revenge on Tolomeo and the plot works its way, via wars, imprisonment and assassination, to a happy ending.
However, though the plot is effective enough, Giulio Cesare presents other problems. A 2012 audience is not willing to listen to the vocal virtuosity of the soloists in a series of superbly crafted da capo arias (there are no ensembles until the closing stages) without some action and so a suitable vocabulary of movement and gesture needs to be found. A period staging offers its own context, but in this modernised treatment there is some early uncertainty about the degree of formality. Furthermore the “slaves”, moving scenery and dead bodies, never quite convince. Leslie Travers’ designs take their time in making an impact, too: costumes are a mixed bag, but a drab set, awkward for movement, eventually emerges glowing with gold under Thomas C. Hase’s lighting.
Tim Albery’s direction, however, is as clear and dramatically effective as always. Characters are strongly differentiated and nothing gets in the way of an outstanding musical performance. Some two decades after her still-memorable Lazuli in L’Etoile for Opera North, Pamela Helen Stephen excels in a rather more serious trouser role as Cesare, dramatically focussed, vocally authoritative, poised between assurance and arrogance. James Laing’s muscular counter-tenor and understated, faintly camp sadism are perfect for Tolomeo. Ann Taylor’s soft-grained mezzo, so affecting recently as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, lacks the vocal edge for Cornelia’s vows of revenge, leaving her only with laments, but Kathryn Rudge brings a youthful ardour to Sesto. Jonathan Best’s sturdy Achilla and Andrew Radley’s nimble Nireno speak for the court of Tolomeo and Cleopatra.
However, the evening belongs especially to two artists making their Opera North debuts. Sarah Tynan as Cleopatra, flirtatiously lifting the opera’s rather stolid opening or mischievously relishing the disguised pursuit of her loved one or suffering with regal courage, is fully in command of the role, with her imprisonment bringing singing of exceptional beauty. Conductor Robert Howarth paces the performance admirably and obtains inspired playing from the Orchestra of Opera North, savouring Handel’s distinctive orchestral colouring and the virtuoso opportunities for violin and natural horns.