Founded in 2007 by John Coke and Suzanne Lemieux, Bury Court Opera brings a touch of that summer opera feeling to the final months of winter. The operas are staged in a converted barn while the sense of warmth that surrounds the occasion is enhanced by having the dining tent attached directly to the performance space, so that audience members can move smoothly from one area to the other.
Greg Eldridge’s production of Giulio Cesare, the focus of its 2018 season, exploits the intimacy of the venue to great effect. The staging is kept fairly simple, but the barn’s relatively small size means that the numerous details and thoughtful touches that are included come across very clearly. As a result, the performance feels extremely dynamic without ever seeming fussy or overblown.
Elliott Squire’s set consists of a series of huge ‘stone’ blocks (presumably made of fibreglass) that form the floor, steps and a back wall, and provide a strong infrastructure for the entire drama while also hinting at an Egyptian palace. One section of the stage, by being devoid of these stones, generates a sunken pit in which the orchestra (the excellent Camerata Alma Viva conducted by Dane Lam) resides. Placing it ‘centre-stage’ emphasises its role within the drama as a whole, as do several other touches across the evening. For example, violinist Charlotte Maclet steps onto the stage to play in ‘Se in fiorito ameno prato’ while Cesare and Cleopatra actually stop what they are doing in ‘Caro! Bella! Più amabile beltà’ to listen to Stuart Wild’s continuo playing. This enhances the theatricality of the occasion, but the joke is in keeping with the idea of a harpsichordist getting carried away with improvising, as they might have done in the eighteenth century.
The costumes cross eras, but within each group remain consistent. The Egyptians’ robes and body painting make them feel a little like Druids, while the Romans’ uniforms and other clothes would appear to place them at the start of the twentieth century. Sesto wears shorts, while Cornelia looks as if she could be a Suffragette, which seems appropriate since it often feels as if she recognises the need to fight for herself, never entirely trusting the men to do so for her. There are, however, touches that ground the costumes more within the original time as parts of Cleopatra’s garb feel intrinsically Egyptian, and Cesare’s armour is Roman.
Interest is sustained in a variety of ways. The eight-strong chorus frequently appear as actors to add colour to certain scenes, and at one point a few of them lift up stone slabs to reveal a swimming pool beneath. During ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ Curio and Achilla act out Cesare and Tolomeo’s confrontation by proxy by being more physically hostile towards each other. Certain words in arias are cleverly emphasised by aligning them to props that are already present. For example, Cleopatra appears to Cesare singing ‘V’adoro, pupille’ wearing a lavish costume that includes pheasant feathers. She drops one of these and Cesare subsequently picks it up as he sings ‘sparrow’. Similarly, a flower for wooing is actually taken from the wreath that lies in front of Pompeo’s ashes. The production also has great emotional impact as Cornelia and Sesto’s ‘Son nata a lagrimar’ is immensely moving. Similarly, as Cleopatra sings ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’, Tolomeo is actually reduced to tears at thoughts of what he is doing to his sister.
Unusually, although far from uniquely, this production makes Cesare a mezzo-soprano and Sesto a countertenor, when the majority opt for the other way around. The choice works well, however, as Helen Sherman in the title role delivers a strongly shaped and nuanced sound, and by showing great attention to her posture and shoulder carriage acts the part of the general very well. Marie Lys is an excellent Cleopatra with the sweetness, strength and flexibility of sound to tackle the part’s disparate demands, and a performance of ‘Se pietà di me non senti’, sung here in Act III, that is an undoubted highlight of the evening. When she is informed of Pompeo’s death she reveals her own calculating nature as she shows some distaste for Tolomeo’s act, but more bemusement as to why he should have thought it was a good idea, and then quickly moves on to think how she can exploit the turn of events. Nevertheless, Lys also shows how Cleopatra is genuinely disarmed by her love for Cesare, making her performance immensely sensitive and emotional as well.
Russell Harcourt and English National Opera Harewood Artist David Ireland deliver immensely accomplished performances as Sesto and Achilla respectively, with Harcourt displaying a beautifully toned countertenor and Ireland an incredibly strong and powerful bass-baritone. John Lattimore reveals his own excellent countertenor as Tolomeo, Catherine Hopper provides an extremely sensitive portrayal of Cornelia, and Sam Queen is an effective Curio. Finally, Elizabeth Lynch’s highly spirited portrayal of Nireno reveals how well the part, another that today is more commonly sung by a countertenor, can work when performed by a mezzo-soprano.
Bury Court Opera’s 2018 season continues until 17 March. For full details visit the Bury Court Opera website, where details of its 2019 season will also appear in due course.