Review: Giulio Cesare, Hackney Empire

Unfamiliar as I am to opera, I was moved by the power it has to communicate without (English) words, but through music, voice and expression. Handel’s Giulio Cesare is a story of bloodshed between royal siblings- rich in tyranny, maddened and maltreated women and a lust for power. The English Touring Opera’s take is minimal and traditional, its subtleties and nuances lying in the ornamentation of the music and the individual interpretations of characters.

The performance on Thursdays covers part of act two and act three, “Cleopatra’s Needle”, in two halves. It runs true to the original length of the opera. Cornelia and her son mourn their husband and father, who has been beheaded by Tolomeo. They are left with nothing and Cornelia is to be viewed as a prize by the men who usurped her husband. Indignant and vengeful, Cornelia and Sesto devise a plan to kill Tolomeo. Meanwhile, Cleopatra (Tolomeo’s sister) adopts a disguise to seduce Cesare. They fall in love and her guise has to be revealed when she tries to stop her people from uprising against Cesare. Cesare flees the battle and with Tolomeo murdered by the revenge-seeking Sesto, Cesare claims Kingship and declares Cleopatra his Queen.

The set consists of an exposed wooden beam structure, round the perimeter of the stage. The ambiguity of this image means that it represents no specific location, allowing the scenes to shift without set changes. In part one, with curtains drawn at the back of the stage, the set resembles a grand court building or a bedroom. Whilst, with the curtains taken away in the second half, setting the backdrop for the bloodshed and outcasting, it suggests the ruins of a fort or cathedral.

The staging for part one is subtle: shifts in spotlight and the hue of the lights. But, things become much busier in the second half with various props, more bodies and set pieces. There is even a real fire, which regrettably had to be put out properly by a scurrying stagehand.

Dramaturgically, James Conway went for something close to the Baroque period in which the play was written, with traditional embellished robes, breeches and small court heels for the boys and serving-men alongside wide skirts for the women. I found there was an interesting use of foreshadowing in act three, when the characters with hope are costumed in white, contrasting Cornelia and Sesto who remain in their black mourning dress and have bleak prospects for the future.

This opera is composed mainly of arias, which I found more dynamic and engaging after the interval. When Achilla opens part two, he begins a capella with a song expressing his disdain for Tolomeo. The baritone voice of Benjamin Bevan is welcomed, amongst a cast of tenor and soprano voices. He sings next to a glowing fire pit, on a dark stage and the deep power of his voice is truly stirring.

The technical virtuosity of Soraya Mafi as Cleopatra is also mesmerising. Particularly in the scene in which she is held a prisoner, she displays all of her technical brilliance in a song that plays with tempo, volume and pitch. Coupled with a moving dramatic performance, as she sings of her spirit haunting her brother under a ghostly spotlight. Altogether, it is a highlight.

One may expect exceptional singers in an opera, but I was particularly engaged by the power of their performance as actors. The performers embody their characters’ emotions entirely at every moment, such that without the music or singing, I think I could still get a strong grasp of the narrative. In the penultimate scene, Cornelia and Sesto revolve in slow motion around the newly proclaimed king and queen, communicating an unfolding revelation of contempt and self-pity through facial expression alone, executed with such clarity and conviction.

As an evening, I found much more excitement in part two. Aside from a few half-hearted staging decisions, I thought the simple and traditionalist approach to staging is effective and satisfying, and the quality of the performers and orchestra is faultless.

Giulio Cesare played at Hackney Empire until October 7 2017.

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith