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.

 

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