"Let's do the show right here", declared Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939). They did, and the rest is history. Somewhere near Farnham on the Surrey-Hampshire border (only my sat-nav knows the precise location) Bury Court Opera follows the same philosophy, staging great opera to exacting standards in, well, a barn.
This is the third of their 13 annual productions that I've seen and, like the others, it's a cracker. Cut but not savaged, Australian director Greg Eldridge's staging of Handel's Giulio Cesare runs close on four hours but feels more like two, so polished is the experience. Only on the home stretch do things threaten to fall apart, with an alarming lurch into cathartic knockabout once the villain has been despatched.
It's not the only misjudgement. Plucky young Sesto (countertenor Russell Harcourt, also Australian) is reduced to a sap in school uniform - not a good look - as he sets about avenging the death of his father, Pompeo, at the hands of Cleopatra's brother Tolomeo. The latter, bewitchingly sung by fellow-countertenor John Lattimore, is decked out like something out of Stargate and is therefore considerably more beguiling than his mummy's-boy nemesis.
Everything else has the professional touch, from designer Elliott Squire's multi-level stone set (pyramid foothills, I'm thinking) to Prema Mehta's cunningly varied lighting. It's sung in the original Italian, with the added charm of surtitles projected onto the barn's transverse oak beams, and musically it's remarkable, cast from strength and conducted by Eldridge's compatriot Dane Lam with dynamic elegance. His orchestra, the Camerata Alma Viva, is a crack 21-strong multi-national band; between them they coloured Handel's rich score with verve, imagination and confident aplomb.
'Delicacy and aching beauty
Helen Sherman completed the quartet of Antipodean creatives with a powerfully wrought account of the title role. Her Cesare suffered, loved, was moved to anger and delivered to joy in a beautifully sustained performance, nowhere more so than in the opera's biggest hit, "Va, tacito" ('Silently and stealthily the cunning hunter moves'), where she struck the ideal balance between determination and introspection.
The object of Cesare's desire (if he did but know it, for disguise plays an inevitable part in this opera) is, of course, Cleopatra herself, and Marie Lys shimmered in the role, not just in her resplendent costumes but also through her vocal dexterity and care for characterisation. Her account of "Se pietà" ('If you do not feel pity'), deep into a long and taxing evening, had all the delicacy and aching beauty of Dido's Lament.
Yet no one broke the heart more than mezzo Catherine Hopper, who conveyed the self-possession of Pompey's widow, Cornelia, in a voice of beauty and dignified warmth. Her performance will stay long in the memory, and it was easy to understand why David Ireland's finely played Achilla, Tolomeo's general and the only substantial low-voice role in the opera, should be so smitten.
Greg Eldridge directed an effective La scala di seta with the Royal Opera's young artists a while back, and his sensitivity to musical imperatives shines throughout this thoroughly enriching evening, flaws notwithstanding. It's well worth priming the Tom-Tom and hitting the A3 to catch it. GU10 5LZ if you've a mind.
There are further performances of Giulio Cesare at Bury Court Barn on 10, 13, 15 and 17 March.