Fabulous by name diabolical by nature / Giulio Cesare / English National Opera – 16 October 2012

18 Oct

To call the latest ENO production of Giulio Cesare vacant, wilfully ugly and spectacularly miscalculated would give you an idea of how bad it really is. Director/Choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan took the gem of Handel’s opera seria output and tarnished it with a jumble of unrelated directorial flourishes, most notably the silly interpretative dance that is both relentless and particularly offensive.
Getting non opera specialist directors in the House, ENO has created a few unexpected hits but mainly it has resulted in unqualified monstrosities. The set was a featureless concave wall made of chipboard that was only used effectively in the final act when covered in a cloth patterned with a wild seascape while Cleopatra sings her dramatic Piangerò la sorte mia shame that it had to be accompanied by an ugly filament bulb but that is a small detail in a production that gave us, unforgivably anonymous costuming and hideous wigs (my heart goes out to Tim Mead for that red octopus on his head) a giraffe and crocodile littering pointlessly the stage, some foldable chairs from a local authority gym, noisy metal buckets filled with ridiculous amounts of fake blood and in one case sand.
When the props start causing the audience to laugh you know you have messed up the production. Had anyone been standing in the corridors of the Coliseum at the start of Act One, and while the obviously immobile/dead crocodile was shot and then doused with a bucket of blood while most of the audience laughed in disbelief, one would think a comedy was on, not one of Handel’s most beautiful, tragedy infused works.
Most of the singers were used as lifeless props while the dancers pranced about. Obviously Keegan-Dolan had very little time for the singers as actors and too much time for his own dance troupe (Fabulous Beast)…a hierarchy that should have rang bells early on with the artistic management of the Company.  This production is an equally miserable night in the theatre for both cast and audience, robbing the singers of the elegant simplicity of embodying a character without the superfluous addition of stage clutter and empty gestures.
The only two singers that managed to cut through the idiocy were Patricia Bardon and Daniela Mack who gave us raw emotion and human warmth in a sea of blandness. They both sang beautifully and created their own microcosm despite the director’s awful idea to make Sesto into a daughter, thus removing the central reference to gender politics that is the moving force of the story.
Tim Mead’s Tolomeo was beautifully voiced but totally lost his way in a slapstick, non-threatening cartoonish approximation of villainy. The audience laughed out loud as he dragged in the head of the giraffe and proceeded to remove the tongue with his bare hands and threaten Cornelia with it. It was not dramatic or engaging, just a ridiculous waste of time.
I will say it once and for all, that I’d rather have a mezzo sing the eponymous role as having three counter-tenors in one opera becomes tiresome. Lawrence Zazzo is undeniably a star but was too trapped by the direction to create a believable character. He became another prop laden, dancer suffocated casualty. His Aure, deh per pietà was the absolute highlight of his performance when he was allowed to be alone on stage and his characterisation took flight. But it was too little too late for us to believe in his Cesare, after having laughed out loud far too many times but that point.

This production also had the dubious honour to offer us the least sexy Cleopatra imaginable, Anna Christy is a striking singer but who has a very particular glassy lyric coloratura voice not really up to the voluptuous/lascivious requirements of the heroine Handel depicts in his opera. We found it very difficult to believe she could seduce anyone but a man with a serious fetish for awful wedding dresses, judging on her terrible white number she wore after the second interval. Also singing V’adoro, pupille on top of a table and to a microphone like a cheap cabaret act was just silly and inconsistent with the rest of the production. She also had to sing Piangero while she is surrounded by dancers complete with wings taking again the focus off the singer at such a pivotal moment. At least she was left alone during Se Pietà di me non senti and she gave us a rendition of utter delicacy and undeniable sadness.

What makes this production even more depressing is that back in March I was lucky enough to attend a sparkling production by Tim Albery for Opera North with Sarah Tynan, Helen Pamela Stephen and Kathryn Rudge. The gorgeously utilitarian but with a hint of luxury production by Leslie Travers was a triumph. It is unbelievable that a company with fewer resources at their disposal can create a sublime experience when the ENO created a complete mess that I very much doubt will ever be revived.

To close on a positive note, Christian Curnyn’s conducting was vibrant and attentive. He clearly is a singer’s conductor and it shows. His period instrument background comes handy when it comes to coaxing a very special lustrous sound from ENO’s ensemble. He tirelessly shaped every single nuance in the score and created meaning in a staging that had such an embarrassing paucity of ideas and insight. He also conducted the exquisite Castor and Pollux last year and is also back to conduct Charpentier’s Medea with Sarah Connolly in early 2013 with David McVicar directing.

This performance was recorded for BBC Radio 3 and is scheduled for broadcast on November 3rd, listen in and make your own mind up!

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