It was Mozart’s illustrious patron, the Emperor Joseph II of Austria who famously banned all forms of dancing from the operas at his royal court, and after sitting through ENO’s new ‘balletic’ production of Julius Caesar I’m inclined to wish Queen Elizabeth II would follow his noble example. When the publicity flyers for a Handel opera proclaim the name of a dance company in large letters above and the names of the singers are relegated to the small print below then it makes one question whether director Michael Keegan-Dolan has got his priorities right.  Maybe it’s the comparatively static nature of Baroque opera and the fear of an audience getting bored which drives some directors to clutter up their productions with extra dancers and other ‘amusing’ gimmicks – but the tragedy here is that ENO have put together a truly superlative cast of first class Handel singers and yet they are constantly sidelined and upstaged by the distracting and highly intrusive use of dance.

ENO has a very successful proven track record as the “House for Handel” and I found its previous productions of Ariodante, Agrippina, Partenope and Radamisto to be brilliantly imaginative and immensely enjoyable.  Composed in 1724, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (to give the piece its full and correct Italian title) is arguably Handel’s greatest opera and with its classic historically-based storyline and vividly drawn characters this production should have been a sure-fire hit – so how did it all go so horribly wrong?  Some might argue that putting a choreographer in charge of directing an opera is asking for trouble; and indeed, this production suffers from exactly the same problem as the Royal Opera’s embarrassingly naff Acis and Galatea; namely that the director-choreographer is clearly more interested in the dancers and frequently leaves the poor singers standing around, left to their own devices.  With minimal personal interaction and a distressing lack of Personenregie, is it any wonder that none of the characters were developed or even believable?  There didn’t even seem to be any kind of coherent concept to Keegan-Dolan’s hyperactive mise-en-scène and unless you’re a big fan of contemporary dance (courtesy of the director’s bizarrely-named Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, who were also responsible for the recent Rite of Spring here) you’re in for an evening that is musically excellent but dramatically about as interesting as watching paint dry.

Andrew Lieberman’s set was almost non-existent, merely a bare wall comprised of cheap-looking brown chipboard, and this minimalist ‘B&Q chic’ was enhanced by a long tressle table and a large dead crocodile. This was later replaced by a large dead giraffe as the sole ‘fascinating’ focal point for the rest of the first act.  Pompey’s severed head was unceremoniously dumped on the floor in a clear plastic carrier bag, provoking audible giggles from the audience at what should be a horrific moment. The crocodile was disembowelled, the giraffe’s severed head was dragged across the stage and our director thought it was a good idea for a bunch of female dancers in balaclavas to hiss, pant and make animal noises during “Va tacito”!  Costumes (by Doey Lüthi) were contemporary and unremarkable, with everyone clad in black or white and both Cesare and Cleopatra changing into formal evening attire from Act II onwards.  Sesto was inexplicably female and referred to as Pompey’s daughter throughout, poor Tolomeo sported a hideous wig and cardigan that made him look like Alan Partridge and everyone sang about swords while blatantly waving guns around.  Oh dear.

Thankfully, musical values were extremely high and there wasn’t a single weak link in this fantastic cast.  The charismatic American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo returns to the Coliseum after his highly successful Radamisto in 2010 and gives us a heroic and passionately sung Cesare, a real joy to listen to.  I’ve heard Zazzo’s Cesare before (twice in Bilbao as well as in the abysmal Paris production, where he had to pretend to be a statue all night!) and his sophisticated vocal interpretation goes from strength to strength.  His instrument has an attractive and full-bodied timbre, luxuriously smooth and even across the registers and with the agility to rattle off fast coloratura with impeccable style and apparent ease.  Zazzo also has the handsome stage presence and personality to carry off the role, although I was left fuming that his gloriously sung “Va tacito” was almost ruined by the silly antics of the dancers and that he was required to negotiate the difficult runs of “Al lampo dell’armi” in his boxer shorts while struggling to put his trousers back on! (He’s going off to battle, potentially to be killed – this bit is not supposed to be funny)

I was very impressed by Anna Christy’s Lucia and Cunegonde at ENO in the past and love the purity of tone and crystalline sparkle of her light soprano, which is very well suited to Handel.  Though her Cleopatra was exquisitely sung, she didn’t convince me from a dramatic point of view, barely scratching the surface of the psychological complexities of the role and coming across more like a sweet schoolgirl than a sexy seductress – although to be fair, the production and lack of imaginative direction certainly didn’t help. Her “Se pietà” was heart-rending and sensitively sung, one of the few blessed moments where a singer was actually left alone on the stage without a dancer in sight.  If only she’d been allowed the same courtesy during “Piangerò”, where her gorgeous singing had to compete with the dancers (now sporting black wings and pretending to be vultures) who were lying on the floor having some kind of epileptic fit during the B section. I really enjoyed her imaginative, high-flying da capo ornamentation on “Non disperar” and “Da tempeste”

ENO débutante Daniela Mack made a fine Sesto, gracefully sung and expressive with a radiant quality to her mezzo-soprano voice – I was very relieved that they only cut one of her arias (“La giustizia” from Act III, which in my opinion is Sesto’s weakest number anyway).  But I failed to understand the point of making Sesto female in this production; it messed up the balance and dynamic of the tightly-knit group of characters and made little sense, especially (as my companion pointed out) because a female Sesto would have been sent to the harem and exposed to the same sexual harassment as her mother – and in this production she wasn’t. Sesto is not Elektra, and I just didn’t buy into this crazed teenage girl running around a stage in high heels while threatening to avenge the murder of her father.

As this review is begging for a giraffe pun, I’m going to stick my neck out and state that I don’t believe there’s a better exponent of the role of Cornelia in the world today than Patricia Bardon.  The Irish mezzo boasts such an astonishingly plush, velvety and full-bodied timbre and sings the part with so much tragic dignity that she always transcends whatever directorial indignities are heaped upon her.  Ms Bardon is truly world class and it’s always a privilege to hear her, particularly in Cornelia’s first aria “Priva son d’ogni conforto” which was sublime. Countertenor Tim Mead has a handsome voice and sang Tolomeo with a refinement that was totally at odds with the buffoonish on-stage persona and terminally unflattering wig which had been imposed upon him.  This was a totally unthreatening Tolomeo with absolutely no sense of danger or sexual menace lurking behind the frivolous façade.  Bass-baritone Andrew Craig Brown impressed as a slick, rich-voiced Achilla, and it was a real pity that two out of his three arias were cut, leaving only “Tu sei il cor” and thus relegating the character to a mere bit-part.  Nireno’s only aria was also cut, leaving poor James Laing with precious little to do – also a shame, considering Laing is an extremely talented countertenor, as he already proved earlier this year with a superbly psychotic Tolomeo in the Opera North production.  George Humphreys’ tall and imposing Curio suffered from having so much of his recitative cut, although what I did hear I liked very much.

There were excellent things going on in the pit too, and conductor Christian Curryn really brought out the richness of the orchestral colours in Handel’s glorious score, while still trying to keep a period “feel” from a band playing primarily on modern instruments.  Tempi were well-judged and the piece never lost momentum – if it felt too long the blame lies squarely with the production.  Though a good few yards of recitative were excised from the score, only a handful of arias were cut – Cesare’s “Non è si vago e bello” and Cleopatra’s “Tutto può donna vezzosa” from Act I, the unfortunate result being that the vital meeting of Cesare and ‘Lydia’ lasts only about a minute, during which neither has time to make any kind of impression on the other.  From Act II we lost Nireno’s aria, Achilla’s “Se a me non sei crudele” and Cleopatra’s “Venere bella” and from Act III it was Achilla’s “Dal fulgor” and Sesto’s “La giustizia” which got the chop.

I have nothing but the greatest respect and highest praise for the work of the excellent singers and orchestral musicians, whose efforts went a long way to redeem an otherwise frustrating and tiresome evening. For musical reasons alone, this Giulio Cesare should be experienced. However, director Michael Keegan-Dolan’s production has not only done Handel a grave disservice but also these fine artists, who deserve so much more than to merely provide pretty background music for a bunch of dancers to prance around to.

4 stars for the music

Half a star for the production

Faye Courtney

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Alastair Muir