In 2017, English Touring Opera presented a ‘director’s cut’ of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in two parts. This revival condenses the material into a more manageable three hours.
James Conway’s elegant production, zippily conducted by Jonathan Peter Kenny, is set around the time when Handel was composing, an era of Catholic Jacobite pretenders to the Protestant throne. Sober Romans represent Protestants and sensual Egyptians Catholics. It’s a shrewd decision as the libretto seems to suggest that although the characters live in the ancient world, a Christian worldview pervades throughout.
Cordelia Chisholm’s designs are handsome, setting the action in an unadorned wood-panelled hall accentuated by gold and turquoise costumes.
Counter-tenor Clint van der Linde plays as Cesare as a no-nonsense soldier used to getting things done promptly. As Cleopatra, Susanna Hurrell (who calls to mind the queenly Elizabeth in Poldark) showcases crystalline ethereality in her delicate vocal ornamentations and in her appearance as a Byzantine Madonna. In her teasing of her man-child brother/husband Tolomeo (vividly played by Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian), there’s a sense of her wishing to be free of this extremely creepy relationship as much she desires power of her own.
Kitty Whately is particularly good at charting the late Pompey’s son Sesto’s emotional development from bereaved child to young man avenging his father’s death and Edward Hawkins balances Achilla’s thuggishness with genuine feelings for Ann Taylor’s Cornelia.
The suggestion that it’s possible for Cesare and Cleopatra to get married and live happily ever after might raise an eyebrow or two – a historical fantasy indeed.