Julius Caesar, ENO, Coliseum
The Daily Telegraph, Wednesday, October 3, 2012
If this tiresome production of Handel’s most popular opera is remembered at all in years to come, it will probably be as “the one with the giraffe”. The life-size and extremely realistic beast makes its first appearance tranquillised upon a table, presumably the victim of big-game hunter Julius Caesar, who wears a stetson and carries a gun. In the second act, its severed head is dragged around by the Egyptian king Ptolemy before he wrenches its tongue out.
Yes, it’s that sort of production. All the characters wear white, so the distinctions between them are lost; blood is poured from buckets; characters pull on stocking masks for no apparent reason; and the important character of Sesto is played as a woman rather than a man. The budget for sets seems to have been blown on the giraffe (and and equally realistic crocodile), as the décor consists of chipboard and plastic chairs.
Most irritatingly of all, there’s a troupe of dancers with nothing better to do than writhe around during important arias. No surprise there – the director is Michael Keegan-Dolan, choreographer and founder of the dance troupe Fabulous Beast. Sensitively and subtly used, dance can enliven and illuminate Baroque opera, which often seems terribly static to modern audiences. And there is a very good example of it here, in a delightful number that accompanies the gravely joyful final duet and chorus. But elsewhere the dance is blandly generic and simply distracts from the music.
It’s a shame, as musically this is a production of some distinction. The hugely long score has been cut to a mere three and a half hours, and time whizzes by under Christian Curnyn’s alert conducting. Lawrence Zazzo is a butch and forceful Caesar, though it takes him a while to find the character’s essential seriousness. Even his fine voice struggled when he had to put his trousers and cowboy boots on during a particularly demanding aria.
Anna Christy plays Cleopatra, and though her pure, clear voice is rather lacking in warmth and sensuality, she excels in the more show-off arias and moments of melancholy stillness. Tim Mead is a nicely psychopathic Ptolemy, smiling as he sings obsessively of “hatred”.
The finest performance comes from Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Pompey’s distraught widow. Ignoring the oddities going on around her, she deploys her rich mezzo to locate emotional truth at all times. Her duet with daughter/son Sesto (Daniela Mack) is the show’s highlight.
Great potential, then, if only Keegan-Dolan hadn’t danced all over it in his hobnailed boots.
Paul Gent, The Daily Telegraph ★★
Original article /