Although English National Opera rightly deserves its reputation as the House of Handel, the chief reason for recommending Michael Keegan-Dolan’s new production of Julius Caesar is somewhat simpler: that it features some quite remarkable singing.
This opera, which sees several characters pitted against the evil usurper of Egyptian power, Ptolemy, features two roles for counter-tenors, and both are taken by brilliant singers. Lawrence Zazzo in the title role executes his runs and trills with ease, as his voice possesses a surety and heft normally reserved for men with lower ranges, while Tim Mead has a joyous tone and smarmy confidence as Ptolemy. Patricia Bardon as the wronged Cornelia has a vocal flexibility rarely found in voices as intensely rich as hers, and Anna Christy as Cleopatra brings real emotion to her heart-wrenching arias.
Dramatically, there are greater problems. Decking the performers in broadly modern dress, while filling the stage with slaughtered crocodiles, giraffes and chipboard walls does not so much update the action as make it feel devoid of meaningful context. Dancing from Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre features throughout, with the movements reflecting the meaning and mood of each aria. The aim, however, to bring greater dynamism to the work feels perilously close to backfiring when so few arias are fast, and the dancing, in matching their rhythms, consequently emphasises the slowness of pace.
But this is not always the case, and the routines in the relatively quick pieces do build up an intoxicating head of steam. Some aspects of the staging are also more successful, and there is a fascinating irony to watching Tim Mead hit such ethereal heights vocally while degrading Cleopatra by dowsing her with sand and water. Still, with the singers and conductor Christian Curnyn on such wondrous form, there is nothing in the evening quite to beat the musical output.
Until 2 November (nine performances) starting at 19.00. Tickets (£16-£99): 0871 911 0200 or from the ENO website.
Photo: Michael Keegan-Dolan’s new Julius Caesar is a co-production between English National Opera and Fabulous Best Dance Theatre, © Robert Workman.