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English Touring Opera’s Giulio Cesare Part I: The Death of Pompey review – ‘astute and detailed’

Christopher Ainslie and Soraya Mafi in English Touring Opera's Giulio Cesare: The Death of Pompey. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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English Touring Opera’s autumn tour launches with what is effectively half an opera: artistic director James Conway, wishing to play the entirety of Handel’s 1724 opera seria Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), has decided that the only way to do so is to split it into two. The first half covers Act I and much of Act II of the original.

The result is still a substantial evening, and there’s no denying the quality of the performance. Placing the piece in the year of its original production, Cordelia Chisholm’s handsome set and costumes offer one of the company’s finest ever shows visually, while Conway’s direction is both astute and detailed.

The plot describes Caesar arriving in Egypt to be greeted by the gift of the disembodied head of his rival, Pompey, removed by the local ruler, Tolomeo, whose sister Cleopatra vies with him for the throne and decides to seduce Caesar in order to gain it.

Both vocally and dramatically the cast is well up to the demands of Handel’s music and successful in supplying decorations which add to its expressive virtuosity. Soraya Mafi’s Cleopatra charts Handel’s delicate but ornate lines with skill, though she could do with clearer diction. Catherine Carby delineates the proud grief of Pompey’s widow, Cornelia, while Kitty Whately is outstanding as her son Sesto.

Countertenor Christopher Ainslie commands the stage as Caesar, and there’s strong support from Frederick Long as his officer Curio, Benjamin Williamson as Tolomeo and Thomas Scott-Cowell as Cleopatra’s counsellor, Nireno.

Conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny, meanwhile, galvanises the Old Street Band in their historically informed articulation of the score.

Read review of Giulio Cesare Part II: Cleopatra’s Needle here

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English Touring Opera delivers an astute and detailed production of the first half of Handel’s Julius Caesar