Review: ‘Giulio Cesare’ at Glyndebourne

Moments of poignancy punctuate this lively and dynamic interpretation of Handel’s opera

Giulio Cesare (Sarah Connolly) and Cleopatra (Joélle Harvey). Image: Bill Cooper

A show that keeps on giving after 13 years in repertoire, David McVicar’s production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare is the perfect complement to a June visit to Glyndebourne, with its intimate theatre and poetic gardens.

This Caesar story covers the Roman general’s first meeting with Cleopatra in Egypt, installing her as queen over her incestuous brother Ptolemy. The setting is a number of British colonial eras merged into one – the evening starts with tall sail ships on the horizon and ends with World War One dreadnoughts and airships. The Roman soldiers wear red coats and pith helmets, as in the film Zulu, with the odd kilt in homage to Carry on up the Khyber. The locals, Ptolemy included, with their fezzes, satin pantaloons and sequins, look like the local colour from a Tintin comic strip.

This is a staging designed to take the sting out of any longeur a Baroque opera can throw at you. Handel’s arias are always repeated: for the singer it gives an opportunity to show off their skill; for the audience time for their attention to wander. McVicar and his choreographer Andrew George make sure that most of the arias are stuffed full with sufficient business – be it fighting, Bollywood-style dancing or cross-dressing – to keep the action tripping along, and the patrons’ focus from slipping to the picnics waiting for them on the lawn.

Giulio Cesare (Sarah Connolly) and Cleopatra (Joélle Harvey). Image: Bill Cooper

But there are also some ravishing moments when the singers are left alone. A highlight for me was the achingly beautiful duet between Cornelia, wife of the murdered Pompey, and her son Sesto at the end of Act One, sung by Patricia Bardon and Anna Stéphany (on particularly fine form). The revival introduces us to a new Cleopatra and a new star in Joélle Harvey, whose sustained plangent singing was most affecting. Her performance is already a tour de force, with perky dance routines slick and relationships with other characters perfectly captured.

Cornelia (Patricia Bardon) and Sesto (Anna Stéphany). Image: Bill Cooper

Counter tenors (men singing falsetto) have long been part of the furniture at Glyndebourne – indeed, it can take credit for bringing the operatic counter tenor back into vogue. Last night, we had two thrilling proponents of the art. The American Kangmin Justin Kim preened and simpered as Cleopatra’s faithful, if camp, sidekick Nireno, before stunning with a very full and powerful sound. Christophe Dumaux, playing Ptolemy, moved with the same astounding agility as he showed in his singing, cartwheeling across the stage, leaping onto tables and bristling with demonic energy. John Moore, the charismatic American baritone playing the evil Achilla, sang and acted with power, looking the spit of of Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. Special mention, of course, goes to Caesar herself, Sarah Connolly, who commanded in both poise and song, her aria with an onstage violinist, Michael Gurevich, a moment of sheer delight in a wonderful evening that was to offer many such moments. William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment offered plenty of space, and the occasional sound effect, for the joyful shenanigans on stage.

A scene from Part III. Image: Bill Cooper

‘Giulio Cesare’ is at Glyndebourne until 23 July.

***

MORE CULTURE

Review: Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House

Five operas to see this summer

Yasmine Naghdi on starring in Swan Lake