The story of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar is known by all and has been widely exploited dramatically over the centuries. Shakespeare, Hollywood, Asterix the Gaul, the British Carry On films et al have all put their spin on the tale of ambition, power, lust and bloody murder. Georg Friedrich Händel’s take on the saga was, in the eighteenth century, a popular and often seen version.
Giulio Cesare in Egitto was first performed in London in 1724 – coincidentally on 20th February, the date I saw this production in The Hague. It, along with other Händel operas, was almost forgotten until its revival in Germany in the 1920s. The composer’s operas then endured another few decades in the wilderness until New York City Opera resuscitated Giulio Cesare in Egitto in a cut-down version in 1966. It was subsequently revived in a more complete version in England in 1977 and is now considered one of Händel’s best operas, being widely staged around the world. This Nederlandse Reisopera production is the latest.
Ancient history affords fertile ground for opera – notably Nabucco and Norma with, of course, Aida and Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, proving that Egypt provides the opportunity for spectacular productions. Nederlandse Reisopera’s Giulio Cesare is certainly that with director/conductor George Petrou and designer Paris Mexis setting it in the 1920s, inspired by the blockbuster movie franchises of The Mummy and Indiana Jones. A good choice because, after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the world became gripped by ‘Egypt-mania’.
The evening’s action started with the arrival of Cesare in Egypt wearing a full length leather coat and fedora at an archeological gig. Counter tenor Yuriy Mynenko was truly in his element as the Roman adventurer. In fact the three main male characters were all played by counter tenors, which was a little disconcerting – it can prove difficult to assert authority in a falsetto voice. However, Nicholas Tamagna, also a counter-tenor, oozed evil as the wicked king Tolomeo. He seemed to relish his role which bordered on pantomime villain, in a good way, at times,
Cleopatra, immaculately played by Sophie Junker was the star of the show but almost had the limelight stolen from her by Rafal Tomkiewicz (another counter-tenor) as Cesare’s factotum Nireno. His hilarious front-cloth vaudeville song and dance routine Cieli swiftly morphed into burlesque as he stripped off his Arab robes and fez to reveal a sequined purple corset and black stockings. This was, for me, and I suspect most of the audience at Amare, one of the highlights of the evening and provided some welcome comic relief in this nearly four hour show. This was soon followed by V’adoro pupille, another lighter moment with Cleopatra as a night club singer aided by on-stage solo violinist Arthur Ornée, perhaps a little out of his comfort zone.
Another undoubted high spot was Cornelia’s song Son nata a lagrimar with her son Sesto, played by Francesca Ascioti and Katie Coventry respectively. That’s right, the boy was played by a girl which, with the three counter-tenors, made an odd mix. Still, they did things differently in the eighteenth century. The three counter tenors were originally scored for alto castrato, which probably explains why there was such a paucity of productions of this opera over the years – you just can’t get the castrati these days.
Visually the production was stunning with, what seemed like, dozens of huge sets which would have done justice to any of the world’s major opera houses. The use of projections worked well and was often necessary to enable the many complicated scene changes to take place behind.
The climax/finale of the show was the departure of Cesare and Cleopatra for Rome which involved an impressive full-size (almost) bi-plane which was very convincing but probably not air-worthy.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable production and, despite its length, never lagged. As I said before, any opera house would have been proud to stage Nederlandse Reisopera’s version of Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Excellent. Michael Hasted 20th February 2022