Review: Giulio Cesare [Parts 1 & 2] (Hackney Empire and tour)

Rome meets Egypt as ETO performs Handel’s lengthy opera across two evenings

Christopher Ainslie as Cesare and Soraya Mafi as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare (ETO)
Christopher Ainslie as Cesare and Soraya Mafi as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare (ETO)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Buckle up: if you take ETO‘s Giulio Cesare challenge you’re in for a long haul. Handel’s opera tops four hours of music when performed uncut – that’s not including intervals – and director and company boss James Conway has seen fit to add a further 45 minutes by treating us to a whole raft of repeats.

He is able do this (although whether or not he should is another matter) because Handel’s dramatic masterpiece is being given either across two evenings or as a pair of separately paid-for experiences on special two-show days. I attended one of the latter, the first such, and the recap/restatement of Handel's Act 2 (or much of it) came a mere 100 minutes after the first viewing. Caveat emptor: in terms of pounds per hour, with only 15 minutes of new material before the interval the second show represents poor value for money.

Artistically, though, it has a worth beyond rubies. English Touring Opera has assembled an outstanding cast for this prestige production, dominated by a performance from Soraya Mafi as Cleopatra that verges on the divine, and Handel’s score (which, if you don’t yet know the opera, is a minor miracle) is magnificently served both by the singers and by the tireless Old Street Band under baroque specialist Jonathan Peter Kenny, with Oliver John Ruthven a sure-footed and -fingered continuo player.

'Fit and ripped'

Countertenor Christopher Ainslie is a charismatric Cesare (aka Julius Caesar), dressed like everyone else in costumes of Handel’s time except when he gratuitously removes his top – because why not flex the pecs when you’re fit and ripped? The two leads are joined by mezzos Catherine Carby and Kitty Whately as tortured Cornelia and her angsty offspring Sesto, and by Benjamin Bevan as the rough-hewn villain Achilla, in a feast of top-notch musicianship and rousing acting. Astounding highlights (among too many to mention) included Mafi’s third-act showpieces "Piangerò" and "Da tempeste", Ainslie’s furious "Empio, dirò, tu sei" and the aching mother-son duet "Son nata a lagrimar". Benjamin Williamson plays the villainous Tolomeo convincingly as a snivelling oik even though his falsetto was occasionally underpowered.

Conway’s production benefits from solid-state designs by Cordelia Chisholm that are doing double service for Dardanus, the tour’s partner opera. Plain wood-effect pillars and posts are evocatively lit by Mark Howland to evoke a range of environments, and this visual simplicity extends to a style of direction that makes much out of very little. Every prop is used once then handled, brandished or cradled in order to fill hours of da capo arias during which nothing much happens. Notwithstanding oddities like Cleo’s dip into Christian iconography and some distinctly am-dram slaying, the staging’s intelligence is its glory.

Giulio Cesare is a wonderful show; I’d see it again in a heatbeat for all its damned repeats. All that’s missing – not for the first time at ETO – is a voice to counsel Conway when he makes a bad call. Even good directors can have lousy ideas (I recall a hugely irritating filing cabinet in Pelléas et Mélisande) and without wise advice marginal misjudgements sell the big achievement short. There was a time long ago when absolute monarchs let jesters speak truth to power, so why not the humble AD?

Giulio Cesare tours to Portsmouth, Norwich, Buxton, Durham, Saffron Walden, Bath, Exeter, Keswick and Great Malvern until 24 November.