Julius Caesar is the greatest of Handel’s operas, and one of the greatest of all opera seria; it contains arias which can stand with the finest by Mozart or Verdi in terms of exploration of character and dramatic power, and it is brilliantly constructed. The ENO has a reputation as ‘the Handel house,’ earned by superb productions of this opera, with Janet Baker in 1979, of Xerxes by Nicholas Hytner in 1985, and Ariodante by David Alden in 1993. If you were amongst the many who were delighted by the singing on the ENO stage last night, I urge you to explore the DVD of the company’s 1979 production — you can catch a few glimpses on YouTube, including a staging of the great ‘hunting horn’ aria ‘How silently, how slyly’ which is a model of how to portray what is in the music — in this case, secrecy, cunning and determination.
None of those were options for Lawrence Zazzo to explore when singing that aria in this production, since he was far too busy adjusting his rifle / stroking the stuffed giraffe / tuning out any surrounding gyrations, to achieve the subtlety which this music requires, and which he is more than capable of evoking. He sang it far more beautifully than we had a right to expect under the circumstances, as indeed he did the even more taxing ‘Al lampo dell’ armi’ during which he was forced not only to put on his trousers (I kid you not) but stuff them into cowboy boots. And I’ll bet he thought he’d reached the heights of onstage absurdity when he had to sing ‘Cor mio’ whilst enjoying a hand job in the ROH Calisto.
Despite a few glitches with intonation, Zazzo triumphed over all the obstacles in his path, and gave as lovely a performance of Caesar’s arioso in response to ‘Lydia’s’ singing as you could wish: it was a very apt touch to place him in the Royal Box for this. Sadly, this was one of the few positive aspects of the production, which carried on the tradition of semaphoring established by the Idomeneo in which it was felt necessary to have dancers twirling during most of the arias. I resent the insulting notion — insulting both to the composer and to the audience — that it is impossible to listen to an aria without extraneous ‘entertainment’ although I’m sure that the choreographer who directed this show intended some deep significance in the gyrations which accompanied much of the music.
The evening was most successful when the singers were permitted to deliver their arias without having to compete with dancers: Patricia Bardon’s noble Cornelia was fortunate in this regard, as was Anna Christy’s kittenish Cleopatra, who only had to endure a few distractions. This is a fairly small, bright, agile voice which one might find difficult to warm to, but her central arias were confidently sung. Tim Mead’s Ptolemy entered into the spirit of his character with his customary relish, singing with clarity and flair, and Daniela Mack’s feisty Sesto gave a rounded portrayal of the proud young avenger.
The cast appeared to have been costumed from the White Company’s Winter catalogue — I own one of those grey cashmere cardigans — and we seem to be in some sort of imaginary land where my bathroom’s cork floor is tacked to the walls, a Nile crocodile is hung up and shot, and a giraffe suffers the same fate. Caesar sports a bushwhacker’s hat and a nice collection of shooters, and the assorted dancers frequently don white head-masks. None of it had any coherence, most of it got in the way of the music, and much of it had that dreary literal-ness beloved of those who really cannot see the point of opera.
I’m sure that someone will say that I failed to understand it, but not so: I understood only too well that it had been felt necessary, for example, when an aria uses a hunting metaphor, to make that metaphor concrete with guns and dead livestock — but this is simply crass, since a metaphor is precisely that, a device which illustrates or contextualizes a situation or a feeling. ‘How silently, how slyly’ employs a hunting metaphor to illustrate the character’s understanding of the need for extreme cunning in what he is about to do. There is no need to semaphore it: all that is required is already there in Handel’s music.
The orchestra plays that music with real elegance under the sympathetic direction of Christian Curnyn; there are especially fine contributions from the continuo of Jakob Lindberg and Nicholas Ansdell-Evans. It’s worth going just to hear the quality of the playing and singing, to appreciate Adam Silverman’s characteristically evocative lighting, and of course for the wonderful music, which rises above whatever absurdity is forced upon it.