Opera North’s Giulio Cesare Review

Leeds Grand Theatre – Saturday 28th September 2019. On tour until 13th November 2019

Reviewed By Dawn Smallwood


Opera North brings Handel’s Giulio Cesare, its second opera to be featured this season. Tim Albery’s production first premiered in 2012 and returns to the stage seven years later. This Italian Baroque opera was composed by Handel at the beginning of the 18th Century and firstly premiered in London. Based on the story of Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt), it isn’t a historic account of Julius Caesar but a fictional one of the relationship between him and Cleopatra during the Roman Civil War (47 BC).

Cesare (Maria Sanner) is in Egypt to pursue his enemy following the murder of Pompeo (Jem Dobbs) and more so the circumstances around it. At the same time both Cleopatra (Lucie Chartin) and Tolomeo (James Laing) are fighting the right to rule Egypt and they belittle one another in pursuit of this. Amid the political, power and personal struggles, Cleopatra seeks support from Cesare for the throne and she disguises as ‘Lydia’ serving Cleopatra. Tolomeo is hunted throughout the story because of being responsible for the murder of Pompeo and also for his abuse of power towards women particularly Cornelia (Catherine Hopper) and Cleopatra. The themes of ambition, power, passion, seduction and vengeance are strongly explored as expressed emotively in song from beginning to end.

The music is set to Nicola Francesco Haym and also Giacomo Francesco Bussani’s librettos and fits perfectly for its expressive emotive arias and duets. Handel is well reputed for this ingenious Baroque style classical compositions and the music is delivered successfully by the baton of Christian Curnyn, a Baroque music specialist.

The stunning staging, designed by Leslie Travers, is mainly inside a gold glittery pyramid with its mirror like and palatial feel to its main meeting spaces and adjoining passages. This Egyptian themed staging and modern costumes link well to the story and individual characters’ personalities and plights.

The company dynamically and dramatically give the production full justice in performing Giulio Cesare. In order to accommodate the vocal demands for Handel’s musical composition, Sanner (contralto) and Charkin (soprano), lead the cast as Cesare and Cleopatra respectively. They wonderfully portray the characters with expressive and melodramatic arias and duets particularly the moving duet in the finale, Caro! Bella! Più amabile beltà when they declare their love and the desired outcome is achieved following a turbulent turn of events.

Giulio Cesare seemingly ends well though the predicament is still uncertain from a political perspective which one can see parallel to world events today. The opera is fairly lengthy, approximately three hours; however it is packed with musical content and an opportunity to appreciate Handel’s musical ingenuity and a story which can be relatable in all modern day circumstances. The opera is sung in Italian however there are English subtitles which the story can be followed with.