Handel's Julius Caesar is not an easy opera to stage. It is almost a chamber piece, with the singers given a succession of wonderful solos with little interaction between them and remarkably few duets. There is also a good deal of orchestral music unaccompanied by singing.
It is the director's job to fill in the gaps and there are two ways of doing so: either create some action on stage to keep the singers busy and give the audience something to watch or, as is Michael Keegan-Dolan's natural inclination, to bring on the dancing girls and boys.
The result is a curious amalgam of opera and ballet, both of which are excellently performed, though whether they fit together is another question.
And then there are the dead animals. I can just see the director pondering the first act and deciding that what it needs is a dead crocodile and a giraffe on stage. “We'll shoot the crocodile and rip the tongue out of the dead giraffe,” he muses, “to give the audience something to think about and emphasize man's inhumanity to, er, crocodiles and giraffes.”
With a choreographer as director, I'd have expected the giraffe at least to do a bit of tap-dancing across the stage while Caesar sings about quietly stalking his prey, but sadly this did not happen.
As for shooting the crocodile, it seems to me that if you are going to bring guns into ancient Roman times, the libretto ought to be modified accordingly.
Having Sesto, daughter of the slain Pompey, repeatedly referring to a 'dagger' while brandishing a gun just emphasizes the anachronism. And when she points her gun across the stage at the tyrant Ptolemy and says “Draw your sword”, it produces a moment of Indiana Jones farce rather than Julius Caesar drama.
Changing the word 'sword' to 'gun' and 'dagger' to 'pistol' would have solved the problem without interfering with the scansion. There is little excuse for slavishly sticking to the original libretto when this is in any case an English translation of the Italian it was written in.
Words and dancing aside, the singing deserves the highest praise. The marvellous Lawrence Zazzo has a glorious countertenor voice which soars to the highest notes with a purity of tone few can achieve.
Tim Mead as Ptolemy also brought excellent countertenor quality to the part of Pompey, which he acted with a hint of lunacy that was just right to justify the incongruity of the violence of his words sung to Handel's joyous music.
Patrcia Bardon was in fine voice and suitably grief-stricken as Pompey's widow, while Daniela Mack made an excellent ENO debut as her daughter, but the starring female role was Anna Christy as Cleopatra. Her long grief-filled aria, when she thinks her lover Caesar is dead and all is lost, performed alone on stage, shows how great music, beautiful singing and a simple but effective set design, can command the attention without needing dancers or a giraffe.
Superfluous though they may have been, I must confess that I quite enjoyed watching the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre doing their thing, though I felt they rather overdid the arm-flapping in their routines, which all too often distracted from the singers, making their job more difficult. My overall impression of the production was therefore rather confused: simultaneously well done and totally misconceived. Particularly if you like giraffes.
William Hartston, Daily Express ★★★