Review: Giulio Cesare, English Touring Opera, Norwich Theatre Royal
- Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Review: Christopher Smith enjoys a two-part operatic feast at Norwich Theatre Royal.
English Touring Opera likes to try something different. This time it brought to the Theatre Royal, Norwich, Julius Caesar in Egypt. In 1724 the first performance of this work by Handel lasted a good four hours. The production presented it on Monday and Tuesday in two audience-friendly parts, the first ending on a cliff-edge.
The major characters come from history to enact a pair of linked plots that owe quite a lot to the imagination of librettist Nicola Haym. Ardent love, bitter hatred, triumph and despair complicate power-politics in relationships that swirl with passion. These are heroic figures, and the tumult of their emotions matches their status.
It seems natural that they should sing out their hearts or their evil desires. In voice and appearance the counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie combines the confident authority of a conquering general with a lover's human hesitations. Tolomeo (Benjamin Williamson) also has ambitions, but his scheming is ineffectual.
There are telling contrasts too between the two leading ladies. Catherine Carby enters fully into the grief of the hapless widow Cornelia while Soraya Mafi's looks and demeanour, charm and vivacity offset most reservations about Cleopatra's character until the end..
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Kitty Whately sings sweetly as young Sesto, and Benjamin Bevan's rich and manly bass is welcome in the role of the predatory Achilla.
Uncluttered and flexible, the stage designed by Cordelia Chisholm allows for plenty of movement, even if more passing reminders of the Egyptian location would not have come amiss. Her choice of eighteenth-century costumes is wise, though Tolomeo's wig causes some merriment.
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So does Cleopatra's appearance looking like a devotional statue in a pilgrimage church. It is one of the few stumbles in James Conway's serious-minded production. It deftly takes the action swiftly from one critical incident to another while respecting the convention that the action should pause for florid arias in Italian when events might seem to demand rapid responses.
Conducted by Jonathan Kenny, the Old Street Band sets the drama against a most attractive period soundscape in period style. Keswick Hall Choir supplies the brief off-stage choruses.