Directions. Take one dead giraffe. Place carefully onto work surface. Sever head. Remove tongue. Serve with a garnish of eviscerated crocodile. Mwah!
In Michael Keegan-Dolan's new production for English National Opera of Handel's greatest stage work, Julius Caesar, a variety of near-realistic animal remains share a bizarre chipboard world with stetson-wearing Romans, critters with condoms on their heads and black dancing birds whose feathers flutter to the vibrato in Cleopatra's voice.
A great deal of thought has gone into it, and to dismiss its ideas out of hand would be to patronise it; but having spent the best part of four hours in its company that is a risk that cuts both ways. The Egyptian Queen slices open a dead croc to remove its eggs, only for her nihilistic brother Ptolemy to bat them away with a croquet mallet. Whatever the image means (and the word ‘crocodile' means ‘lizard of the Nile', so we may guess), it is undone by the verismo of designer Andrew Lieberman's reptile and aforementioned giraffe. Too lifelike to be stylised, yet treated with non-realistic interactions, they neither invite suspension of disbelief nor create a satisfactory stage symbol. The problem extends to the entire production.
An opera seria of sublime melodic lustre, Julius Caesar finds an interpreter of dynamism and taste in Christian Curnyn. Lively tempos propelled the action forward and challenged an outstanding team of virtuoso singers to keep up – which they did. The baroque orchestra was on fine form, with particularly exciting interventions from the natural horns at the opera's finale. Musically, then, ENO has a winner. Handel's take on ancient history's greatest soap-opera contains some of his greatest stage music: Caesar sues Cleopatra for peace after the death of Pompey, but both rulers have to contend with the dastardly doings of Ptolemy, Cleo's brother. Cue Pompey's son, Sesto, to save the day for the good guys. It's exciting, primal stuff and even today, three centuries after its composition, the opera retains its power thanks to its rainbow of musical hues and dramatic moods.
It is, as well, a night spent in counter-tenor heaven, with no fewer than three fine exponents of the falsettist's art on prime form. Lawrence Zazzo is a charismatic Caesar who sings his earworm aria ‘Va tacito' with great style, and Tim Mead's Ptolemy is every bit his match. James Laing does well, too, with the cruelly cut role of Nirenus, Cleopatra's servant.
No finer performance graces the production than that of Patricia Bardon as Pompey's grieving widow. With her exemplary diction and warm alto timbre, Bardon gave an overwhelming account of Cornelia's lament that was only slightly compromised by the rustle of a polythene bag containing her husband's head. Anna Christy's Cleopatra, while splendidly sung, failed to dominate the opera as she should because her bright soprano timbre, which verges on the shrill, allows too little scope for emotional light and shade. Daniela Mack as Sesto was better suited to the music, although the decision to change her character's gender (‘Sesta'?) was a pointless irritation.
Keegan-Dolan is best known as the presiding genius of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, so unsurprisingly the stage was regularly visited by a team of energetic dancers who writhed and slithered, limbs flailing away from their bodies, in choreography that was vivid and frequently affecting. Too often, though, it illustrated Handel's beat rather than adding a dimension of its own, and it offered little by way of character elucidation. As for the final act's wrecked stage, littered with detritus from the evening's mayhem, if it symbolised anything it was ENO's habit of producing the occasional dystopian dud.