Julius Caesar, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, October 2012

As a great fan of recent ENO productions I was hoping for better despite the many negative comments I had heard about this one.

Caesar and dancers, all images ENO/ Robert Workman

Julius Caesar, which deals with Caesar’s visit to Egypt in 47 BC when he was chasing Pompey and met the twenty-one-year old Cleopatra, is one of Handel’s great operas, full of rich melodies and stylistic variation, more so than any of his operas up to that time. Its rhythmic intensity compels movement from the performers, but in this odd production by Michael Keegan-Dolan the singers were mostly left fairly immobile while dancers took over the choreography. This sometimes suited the music and sometimes not, but the main problem is that it detracted from the impact of the singers and didn’t move the drama forward. Temporary losses of surtitles didn’t help, and it was not always easy to catch the words since the singers’ diction was of variable quality.

Ptolemy pours sand on Cleopatra

A more coherent production, with less histrionic waving of pistols, shots being fired, and red paint and even sand being poured over the singers might have helped, but for all that the dancers could do the choreographic content was nugatory. This was a pity because Patricia Bardon as Pompey’s widow Cornelia was a class act. Her singing and vocal expression of grief were outstanding, and counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo as Julius Caesar had a truly Handelian quality. Tim Mead gave an intriguing and well thought out performance as Cleopatra’s teenage brother Ptolemy XIII, and Anna Christy was an earnest and vocally pretty if lightweight Cleopatra. In this important role she was poorly served by the costumes: her simple white dress and grey cardigan in Act I were frumpy, and her see-through tutu later on looked absurd.

Ptolemy and Cornelia

Christian Curnyn, who collaborated with the director in making various cuts to the music, particularly some of the recitative, conducted with a sure hand for the singers, bringing out the stylistic variety of this work, though the result was a tad lacking in bite. But it was the production that took the soul out of Handel’s masterpiece, and the transformation of Daniela Mack’s fine Sesto to be Cornelia’s daughter rather than her son seemed merely the offspring of a wish to be different.

Among strange opera productions I have seen and disliked, including some defiantly Regietheater ones in Germany, there are some I would be willing to see again in the hope they would reveal interesting though hitherto unnoticed interpretations. This is not one of them.

Performances continue until November 2 — for details click here.

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