For the record, I wore jeans and trainers to last night’s performance of Julius Caesar – pace Giulio Cesare – at English National Opera. And I wasn’t alone. Somehow I think ENO’s latest bid to get ‘young people’ through the doors will fall flat. It doesn’t matter what you wear to the opera – one gent was in a track suit – as long as what is happening on stage commands your complete and total attention.
Sadly, ENO’s new production of Giulio Cesare did not.
John Berry continues with his obsession of employing ‘creatives’ who have no or little track record of previously directing opera. I am not saying that on occasion – a rare occasion – he doesn’t score a success. I am thinking in particular of Anthony Minghella’s cinematic production of Madame Butterfly. It may not have plumbed the depths of characterisation but it was certainly memorable.
Others have not been so fortunate. Terry Gilliam’s Faust was – after all the hype – disappointing; Figgis’ Lucia di Lammermoor was nothing less than bel canto cannibalisation and Rufus Norris’ Don Giovanni mistook crass violence for drama.
For this venture at the self-dubbed ‘House of Handel’ Berry selected to work with Michael Keegan-Dolan in a co-production with the latter’s Fabulous Beast Dance Company. Previous credits for Keegan-Dolan include ENO’s production of Alcina, which I remember with some fondness for the elegance of its choreography and their more recent production of The Rite of Spring, which I did not see.
ENO has assembled a pretty strong ensemble of singers for this venture. Led by Lawrence Zazzo it included Anna Christy, Patricia Bardon and Tim Mead whom I have seen before as well as Daniela Mack, Andrew Craig Brown, George Humphreys and James Laing.
And in the pit, Christian Curmyn.
On paper it all looked so promising. And overall musically it was.
Zazzo’s voice may have lost some of its bite and attractive starchiness over the years but he still sounds beautiful. He can still produce a gently honeyed tone although perhaps now there is a little less colour and shade throughout his still considerable range. And he has lost none of the vocal agility for which he is renowned and which was tested to the full in this role. I won’t go so far as to say his Cesare was a tour de force but there were moments of great beauty. In particular in the third act, his Aure, Deh, Pietà was just short of stunning and thankfully devoid of much of the pointless direction that littered the evening.
Before the metaphorical curtain rose, we were informed that Ms Christy was suffering from a severe cold. Apart from a slight hint of tightness at the top of her range and the smallest hint of flagging just before she rallied for the final duet, hers was an accomplished performance as Cleopatra. She handled the florid runs and her da capo ornamentation with gusto and almost pinpoint accuracy. I imagine that when she is fully recovered her voice will have an added softness that was sometimes missing on Thursday evening. Her V’adoro, Pupille – sung rather smartly I admit as a nightclub singer – was suitably graceful and light and her final aria – Piangerò la sorte mia – was heartfelt if lacking in the subtle vocal colouring that would have made it more memorable. However there was no faulting the end of the second act and Che sento? Oh Dio! Se Pietà di me non senti. Here Christy delivered a mesmerising, undistracted performance, emotionally focused and beautiful of tone. It was – for me – the highlight of the evening.
Patricia Bardon got off to a rocky start. Her opening aria Priva son d’ogni conforto – a pitfall for many singers exactly because of its simplicity – was too heavily sung but she got into her stride and by the duet at the end of Act One was in fine voice. She does have a slight tendency to untidiness in her ornamentation in the da capo return but the depth and richness of her voice always makes her a joy to listen to.
Tim Mead as Ptolemy was both vocally secure, with a pleasant bell-like tone sufficiently distinct to his Roman nemesis with confident technique to manage the coloratura. And Daniela Mack – in her Coliseum debut – was a striking Sesto. Played inexplicably as a girl, Mack’s Sesto was the character who most clearly evolved from child to avenger in the course of the opera. However how much this was due to Keegan-Dolan’s direction rather than her interpretation of Handel’s music and her own talent is open to question. Again her bright soprano eased through the music with agility and precise coloratura. I look forward to seeing more of Ms Mack on stage.
Curmyn led the orchestra with finesse. But as I remarked when he conducted Castor et Pollux, there was a lack of orchestral light and dark amongst the players – he didn’t really delve deeply into the sound world that Handel so carefully wove into the score. But his rhythms were sharp and crisp and he maintained a good sense of momentum through the recitatives. My only gripe is that sometimes his tempi erred on the side of haste. In particular in the wonderful duet between mother and daughter/son Son nata a lagrimar and Cleopatra’s Piangerò, where a little more breadth was really needed to do full justice to the music.
Unfortunately the quality and thoughtfulness given over to the casting and music was badly missing from Keegan-Dolan’s directing and choreography.
Bar one single instance of inspiration the entire evening was nothing short than a slow-footed mess. My heart sank when I first entered the auditorium to find the curtain pulled back to reveal the stage. This was a device used most recent at ENO by Barry Kosky in Castor et Pollux. But whereas his stage was empty, Keegan-Dolan’s revealed a suspended stuffed crocodile and a giraffe loitering at the back of the stage like a Toys R Us after a raid by particularly misbehaved children. I would like to think that the director selected the crocodile because of it’s Renaissance symbolism – as suggested in one review – but I think it had more to do with the geographical location of the opera and the allure of a cheap visual gag.
I also cannot fathom the reason why corps de ballet were on stage throughout except that the restrictive set design did not facilitate easy access or exit either stage left or right. When they weren’t dancing they were tidying up, pouring fake blood over the singers or sitting in one of the trenches.
And so to the dancing. I didn’t find it distracting overall but I do question what artistic or narrative value it added. I am not opposed to dance in opera – even when it isn’t implicitly written into the score. I think back to Alcina and the charming way Tornami a vagheggiar closed the first act. By Keegan-Dolan I note.
In this production’s programme the director/choreographer wrote that the dances reflected “the yearning of the characters to connect with the universal and express each characters’ attempt to find resolution and end their suffering.
I am not expert in the vocabulary of dance but if the movements of the dancers were meant to express the feelings of the dancers then Keegan-Dolan saw the characters as emotionally bland and simple ciphers. The same flailing movements occurred again and again and again, either in solo or ensemble or, quite tiringly, starting as solos and then gradually more dancers joined one by one.
Indeed the single moment of beauty and insight in this masterpiece of Handel’s was at the end of the Second Act. Cleopatra’s Se pietà was heartrending not only in her performance but in the direction. Why? Because the stage was devoid of any dancing or pointless activity so that everything was focused on Christy. It threw the rest of the Opera’s tediousness direction into sharp relief.
A few years back I saw Piña Bausch’s Iphigénie at Sadler’s Wells. I remember being sceptical as the curtain rose thinking how could anyone merge Gluck’s masterpiece with dance. Well Bausch achieved it, creating a work of infinite beauty and emotional depth, intelligence and impact. All sadly lacking from Keengan-Dolan’s interpretation.
Also in the programme Keegan-Dolan, almost in defence of his production it seems writes – “As a choreographer or director one is vulnerable to making the mistake of adding too many extra elements to what Handel has given us, when in fact all that is necessary is to excavate thoroughly what is already there and simply allow its implicit power to emerge.
” It’s a shame that he didn’t listen to his own advice. Apart from the visual gags, the dancing didn’t add anything and in fact – while not overtly distracting – seemed to afford him with something to hide behind similar to the sheet behind which the onstage orchestra performed for V’adoro pupille. It enabled him to overlook, or more damning, neglect the development of the characters in this, only of Handel’s most carefully written operas in terms of characterisation.
And as for his comment about apple pie – “Adding ice cream to cream already on a slice of apple tart will smother any taste of the apple” – I can only assume that Mr Keegan-Dolan has an over-sweet tooth artistically speaking as he simply cannot leave anything alone. Apart from the crocodile and the giraffe complete with its ripped out tongue, Keegan-Dolan persisted in cramming nonsense into the production. Balloons, Caesar for some unknown reason as cowboy cum big game hunter and out of the blue a single moment of cruelty that was completely out of kilter, unexpected and therefore totally unnecessary. I refer to Ptolemy’s treatment of his sister in the Third Act. The abuse – and there is not other word for it – was more akin to the work of Calixto Bieito but at least in the latter’s productions it is consistently applied. Here it felt simply felt contrived and a desperate attempt to lift the drama through tawdry shock tactics.
And not content with interfering with the narrative thigh his ideas, he messed with the story itself. Why was Sesto a young woman? There was absolutely no dramatic justification for it nor any explanation. Pointless.
As for the lighting and costumes. Bland. Why was Caesar in cowboy boots and vest and why did Cornelia look more like a shop assistant from Estée Lauder than a grieving widow?
But to return one final time to Keegan-Dolan’s own note in the programme he writes – “If you close your eyes and listen to Handel’s music …”.
I am not saying that the Fabulous Beast Dance Company are not talented but by the start of the Second Act it was a very tempting to,take the director up on his offer.
It’s a tragedy, almost of Classic proportions, that singing and musicianship of such a high standard was almost universally marred by a bad original idea and worse than dreadful direction. It’s even sadder that I think that this production of Giulio Cesare will never see the light of day again.
Indeed if this was the Roman Coliseum it would definitely be getting the thumbs down.