Julius Caesar in Egypt – review

This was a long late afternoon/ evening witnessing Julius Caesar’s misadventures in Egypt according to Handel and his librettist Nicola Francesco Haym in 1724.

English Touring Opera’s absolutely complete staging of Giulio Cesare without cuts began at 4:00pm and, with intervals, finally ended at 10:10pm – over six hours!

In its entirety, without breaks, it actually lasts just short of four hours!

It was given in two parts and marketed as two separate ‘shows’, The Death of Pompey and Cleopatra’s Needle, each with an interval, and a question of demand on your wallet!

The parts were realised by attaching scenes 1 to 8 of Act Two to Act One (part one) of the opera and prefacing Act Three with scenes 3 to 11 of Act Two (part two).

Vague reasoning came into play with the thought that maybe four hours was a tad too long for audience attention span – hence, the two parts – and the crazy notion of repeating the last chunk (around 45 minutes) of part one at the beginning of part two.

A totally unnecessary exercise, it meant a 90-minute break between the two parts when a cold wind and rain entertained themselves on the Buxton Opera House forecourt.

Did anyone do the sums beforehand?

Had the opera been performed in its normal three acts with two intervals the evening would have lasted around four hours, 30 minutes, not a needlessly overlong six hours and a bit!

Fortunately, there was exceptional music making, not least extraordinarily accomplished singing, to make it just about bearable and an updated-in-time production that for once does not offend the senses, courtesy of set/ costume designer Cordelia Chisholm.

ETO general director James Conway directs proceedings without undue interventional gratuity, beyond being ancient Egypt in resolutely set in Hanoverian times – circa 1724 (when the opera premiered) – in Britain when Protestant/ Catholic relations were uneasy.

Added production elements are pertinent, although the “subtly different perspectives” in the repeated scenes are neither nor there.

There was a bonus, though, in that we got to hear Soraya Mafi’s heart-rending account of Se pieta di me non senti again as Cleopatra, her silvery yet opulently toned voice being a constant delight throughout.

The virtuoso arias were fearlessly met with coloratura runs and other vocal ornamentations cleanly pitched and often expressively delivered.

Likewise, an equally magnificent Christopher Ainslie as Julius Caesar, his countertenor voice being more soprano than alto, not that it mattered in the least in the face of stunning vocal dexterity.

Vocally, there is not a weak link in the cast of eight: Kitty Whately makes an admirably telling impression as Sesto and Catherine Carby, not overdoing Cornelia’s mournful state, are the other principal Romans.

Benjamin Williamson, an alto countertenor so contrasts well with Ainslie, as a thoroughly despicable Tolomeo and Benjamin Bevan as his not quite as obnoxious lieutenant, Achilla, are the other principal Egyptians.

Jonathan Peter Kenny’s period instrument Old Street Band provides impeccable support and interesting to see the name of a vocal coach, Ann Murray DBE, no less.

The famed mezzo-soprano has certainly done her job here!

 

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O No, it wasn’t. . !

Anyone going to the City Hall last Thursday anticipating a once in blue moon opportunity of hearing the virtually never heard, let alone never seen ballet music in Mozart’s opera Idomoneo will have been disappointed.

They may even have felt cheated.

Depending on tempi, around 25 minutes of music should have been heard. There was five minutes of the ballet – the regal Chaconne, preceded by the Overture to the opera.

It was bad enough that the brochure blurb for the Royal Northern Sinfonia concert effectively states that Idomeneo was a “ballet score” by Mozart with no reference to the opera in which the ‘ballet’ is little more than five dance episodes.

The City Hall is not to blame; the fault rests with the orchestra in furnishing misleading information.

 

Julius Caesar meets Cleopatra

English Touring Opera arrives in Buxton this coming weekend with the two staged offerings in the company’s autumn season, Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto and Rameau’s Dardanus.

As always, Sheffield is not on the itinerary as it is for ETO’s spring tour but, as in recent years, there will be a whistle-stop visit on the 5th of November to anchor a concert featuring a major choral work – Bach’s B minor Mass this year!

The autumn tour – usually with Baroque operas – has a particularly magnetic draw this time round in Handel’s opera, Julius Caesar in Egypt, usually known as just as Giulio Cesare – or Julius Caesar!

Not that it is merely a chance to see what many regard as the composer’s operatic masterpiece in this neck of the country; it also comes with a considerable bonus. It is being performed absolutely complete!

It rarely is and is usually cut as its four-hour running time is regarded as a deterrent. Indeed, ETO sees it that way and so is performing it in two parts with fabricated titles on Saturday (21st October) in Buxton: The Death of Pompey at 4pm and Cleopatra’s Needle at 8pm.

For some reason, part two begins with a repeat of the last five scenes of part one. It can only be assumed that this has something to with the two parts being performed 24 hours apart at some venues.

Handel wrote it in three acts over which, in brief, the following is enacted:

Pursuing his enemy Pompey, Caesar follows him to Egypt. Pompey’s wife, Cornelia, implores him not to kill him. He is about to grant her wish when Tolomeo, co-ruler of Egypt, presents him with the head of Pompey. Cornelia and Pompey’s son, Sesto, swear revenge.

Tolomeo’s sister and co-ruler, Cleopatra, wants to depose him. She sees a chance with Cornelia and Sesto’s quest for vengeance and, in disguise, seduces Caesar to get him on her side. Tolomeo (who lusts after Cornelia, by the way!) makes a failed attempt to slay Caesar.

Cleopatra hears reports that Caesar, by now smitten with her, has drowned. Tolomeo imprisons her. Far from being dead, Caesar appears and frees her. Sesto kills Tolomeo. Caesar proclaims Cleopatra as Queen of Egypt and returns to Rome.

Such is, or was Handel’s scenario. It is clear from production photos of the staging that the period is not 47 BC and, in all likelihood, the location not Egypt.

On paper, there is a super cast with South African countertenor Christopher Ainslie as Caesar and highly rated young Lancashire-born soprano Soraya Mafi as Cleopatra who get to sing all nine arias each that Handel penned for the characters.

Australian-born mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby is Cornelia, outstanding British mezzo Kitty Whately is Sesto (a trouser role and, yes, Kevin is her dad in case you didn’t know!) and Benjamin Williamson, another excellent countertenor, plays Tolomeo.

English Touring Opera’s period instrument orchestra, the Old Street Band is conducted as always by one-time countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny and the performance is given in its original Italian with English surtitles.

The Rameau (20th October), reckoned a neglected masterpiece, is ETO’s first foray into French Baroque opera – Dardanus is the son of Jupiter who spends most the time trying to secure the hand of Iphise – and the production marks the British premiere of the 1744 version.

 

Schubert in Sheffield

Sheffield University’s new concert season, in effect, gets into motion this Thursday, the 5th of October, with a 45-minute rush hour concert given by PhD students at Firth Hall.

The city’s busiest concert season is again divided into four strands: Forged in Sheffield, featuring concerts by in-house forces; Sound Laboratory, which caters for contemporary music; Global Soundtracks, taking in an array of world music; and SongMakers.

This time round the latter provides the umbrella title for three Lieder concerts hinged on Schubert presented in collaboration with the annual Leeds Lieder festival and a performance of Bach’s B minor Mass in association with English Touring Opera on the 5th of November.

The season proper can be said to start on the 15th October with the first of three Schubert concerts under the heading ‘Schubert in Sheffield’. Every indication is that the increasingly acclaimed pianist Joseph Middleton is curating them and he begins in the realms of Goethe.

Of the 600-plus Lieder – or songs – that Schubert penned, 82 are to texts by Goethe, though not all different texts as the composer was prone to re-visiting a text, perhaps with a gap of years intervening, sometimes more than once. One song actually exists in six versions!

It’s one of his Mignon Lieder from Goethe’s multi-volume novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years), Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt – Only those who know longing.

Mignon is a female character in the Apprenticeship books of the philosophical saga who Wilhelm rescues on his travels the tomes, too, introducing a lugubrious blind Harper (a minstrel) who is given texts that Schubert also set.

Both are encountered at the initial concert: the three Gesänge des Harfners (Harper Songs), plus the earlier Harper song setting, Der Sänger, and four of the six Mignon Lieder, including Kennst du das Land – Know you the Land? and the fifth setting of Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, as a duet!

After those, we meet Gretchen from Goethe’s Faust in three songs, including the well-known Gretchen am Spinnrade and slightly less familiar Der König in Thule.

Among 16 other song masterpieces in a Goethe–Schubert timeline are the two settings (seven years apart) of Wandrers Nachtlied, Rastlose Liebe, Der Erlkönig, Ganymed, Geheimes, Der Musensohn and Wilkommen und Abschied.

Two of the finest up and coming singers around, Slovenian soprano Nika Gorić and British baritone James Newby give voice to them – the latter was awarded the Richard Tauber Prize for the best interpretation of a Schubert Lied in 2015!

Details are scarce at present on Joseph Middleton’s second Schubert concert on the 21st of November with soprano Mary Bevan, no less, which deals with myths and legend. Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos has filtered through, plus Italian songs by Schubert and Mozart.

Ditto: to a point, the third concert on the 13th of February with much-praised young baritone Ashley Riches, although two song cycles appear to be scheduled, Schubert’s Schwanengesang and Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant Beloved).

Details of the whole University Concert Season can be found at www.sheffield.ac.uk/concerts