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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