The original composition of Handel’s Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) is nearly four hours long. For this Opera North revival, Tim Albery has revised the music to a more manageable three hours in length. Nevertheless, this is still an epic historical opera that demands a high level of attention and investment from its audience. It is totally worth it though!
This opera is sung in Italian with English subtitles.
After two years of civil war, Julius Ceasar (Giulio Cesare) has defeated the legions of Pompey (Pompeo), and has pursued his rival to Egypt. Egypt in 47 BC was ruled by Ptolemy (Tolomeo), Cleopatra’s brother. Pompey asks Ptolemy for aid, but instead is murdered by the vicious King of Egypt. Outraged by this brutal act of treachery towards Rome, Julius Caesar swears vengeance. He even manages to fall in love with Cleopatra along the way.
This is a politically complex plot, with two warring factions, that may make it difficult to follow for those who haven’t seen the opera before, or who are not familiar with the history of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. It could seem initially impenetrable but Handel’s opera introduces characters steadily, allowing the audience to settle into the plot and understand what is happening.
This opera is long. Lines of verse are elongated and the repetition of lines can go on for several minutes, with vocal variations. However, the captions don’t stay on for that length of time, so it can become confusing to discern what the characters are singing about. There were moments where I actually forgot what the original line was by the time they had finished singing it. Perhaps leaving the captions on the screen over the sustained time can help the audience know that they are repeating the line. This would be particularly help for people with hearing impairments.
Despite its length, Giulio Cesare is a captivating opera with plenty of action and drama. Watching it never feels like a laborious task. Instead, it is easy to get swept away by its fascinating characters, political turmoil, and Handel’s magnificent score.
Gender switching appears to be everywhere at the moment, and Giulio Cesare isn’t immune to it, with Maria Sanner being cast in the title role and Heather Lowe playing Sesto, Pompey’s son. A cynical critic could accuse Opera North of simply following a trend. However, Handel himself cast female opera singers in male roles if he believed that it was the best fit for the role. Sanner and Lowe are certainly perfectly cast for their roles. Heather Lowe‘s Sesto appears to be fuelled by vengeance for his father’s death, with anger and hatred etched into the fabric of her performance.
Maria Sanner is superb as a compassionate, yet composed Cesare. With fantastic stage presence, Sanner brilliantly depicts Cesare’s power and influence. Meanwhile, she also renders tenderness and vulnerability in the romance with Cleopatra. Sanner shares considerable chemistry with Lucie Chartin’s Cleopatra, so the fact that a female opera singer has been cast in the title role doesn’t undermine the opera at all. In fact the opposite happens. The couple’s vocals appear to harmonise with each other, which adds further depth to their relationship.
Lucie Chartin is spellbinding as Cleopatra. Her arias are simply breathtaking, particularly those that are performed whilst sat or lying down. She rightfully received tumultuous applause for her aria, that prays for Cesare’s safety, as she lies chained on the floor. Chartin’s Cleopatra is a charming temptress who ensnares the audience’s heart as well as Cesare’s. This is evident in the aria where she seductively removes her stockings, undressing to take a bath. Far from a helpless beautiful Egyptian, Chartin also brilliantly depicts her character’s strength and fierce defiance against her villainous brother, rendered to perfection by James Laing.
Particular credit also needs to be given to Amy J Payne who stepped in at the last minute to cover the role of Cornelia. Payne delivered a standout performance, as the widow who is mourning her murdered husband, Pompey. If that wasn’t bad enough, she has to face sexual advances from the two men responsible for his murder. The lament she shares with Heather Lowe, as they spread Pompey’s ashes is utterly devastating. Her grief and despair is overwhelming.
Leslie Travers‘ set design is spectacular. A huge monolithic structure dominates the stage, which rotates to reveal the golden splendour of Egypt. The mirrored gold reflects light, giving the set a splendid radiance. This contrasts with the backdrop of grey stone Roman pillars, headed with the initials SPQR. Peppered with shell holes, it is immediately clear that this is a nation at war.
Although Giulio Cesare requires attention and investment, it pays dividends. It is full of action and drama, set alongside wonderful music. Full credit to the cast, crew, orchestra and conductor for sustaining the energy to magnificently perform Handel’s lengthy opera.