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English Touring Opera’s Giulio Cesare Part II: Cleopatra’s Needle review – ‘much to admire’

Christopher Ainslie and Soraya Mafi in English Touring Opera’s Giulio Cesare Part II: Cleopatra's Needle. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith Christopher Ainslie and Soraya Mafi in English Touring Opera’s Giulio Cesare Part II: Cleopatra's Needle. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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It is English Touring Opera’s experienced general director, James Conway, who devised and stages this version of Handel’s opera seria, split over two evenings – see review of Part I here.

The piece is played in its original edition of 1724, without any cuts, but also without any alternative sections substituted by the composer in his own later revivals. But playing this extensive piece in two parts creates its own problems.

The second part makes an error right at the start: it repeats a large chunk of the original work’s second act that the audience has already experienced at the end of Part 1, The Death of Pompey. Not only is this material redundant, but it lengthens unnecessarily what is already a substantial evening. While audiences in some centres can hear the two parts on different evenings, others will hear them on the same day; presumably they will get this mammoth repetition too.

Apart from that, the second part has a lot to commend it, with Cordelia Chisholm’s elegant set once more providing an attractive frame and her 18th-century costumes suggesting character as well as period.

There is plenty of character in the individual performances, too, including – crucially – in the singing, which maintains a high standard that is nevertheless let down here and there by weak diction. Whatever the language – the opera is sung here in the original Italian – we need to hear the words.

That said, there is much to admire in the company’s work. In Part II, Christopher Ainslie’s Caesar steals the show with a breathtaking aria sequence that he brings off with resounding success, but there’s also skilled and memorable work from Benjamin Bevan’s villainous Achilla, Benjamin Williamson’s craven Tolomeo and Frederick Long’s Curio, while the Old Street Band has another good night under Jonathan Peter Kenny’s enlivening baton.

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Despite some redundant material, Giulio Cesare Part II has much to commend it