A humongous dead crocodile (the power of Pharaoh) dangles perilously down from the ceiling, eyes shut, curved teeth protruding like a quietly knowing smile. Figures enter from left and right dressed all in white, dancers begin to sway and curve their arms, droop their heads in tandem. Soon somehow Cleopatra is straddling the crocodile carcass on the floor, legs gleefully akimbo, scooping eggs from its split-open belly only for them to be later putted offstage by a maniacal, power-crazed Ptolemy. Handel’s music expands and envelops the scene, its familiar warmth and poise floating up from the pit.
Using a sparse, stylised setting dominated by bold shapes and a stage busy with movement, director and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan creates an alarming sense of dramatic space for this renowned opera seria. Premièred in King’s Theatre in 1724, Julius Caesar is an ambitious presentation of a noble theme from antiquity in keeping with the conventions of the genre, filling three acts with a total four-hour running time. Like many of Handel’s London operas from this period, it was commissioned by the budding Royal Academy of Music and tasked with reflecting something of the directors’ aspiration to classical culture. The opera played to popular acclaim, solidifying Handel’s fame.
In fact, London audiences were beginning to be drawn from outside the confines of the traditional court around this time, despite the preponderance of the royal box. Perhaps what seems distinctive today is the close and charged connection between composer, singers and then contemporary audiences – the excitement of new works and their intimate, almost messy reception by a growing listening public. At this time castrati were common, also commanding huge fees and equal followings, while the individual parts were written partly to showcase specific voices. The libretto comes from Nicola Haym based on an earlier version from the late seventeenth century, while Queen Cleopatra was already becoming a hypnotic literary figure by the early eighteenth century.
It wasn’t until Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt at the end of the century that this strange and static ancient world was brought more into the light for Europeans, stimulating a characteristic craze for Egyptian-style country gardens replete with sphinxes and the private patronage of a massive obelisk to travel by ship all the way to England – the so-called ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ – that still stands on the Thames bank today. Here the focus is still more neoclassical, drawing on both Greek and Roman influences: the drama revolves around the relationship of our soon-to-be imperial hero and the exotic Queen, their enviable charms, passion and mutual lust for power amidst bloody battles and personal jealousies, all played with epic dimensions.
The work begins as Caesar (Laurence Zazzo) arrives in Egypt a conquering Roman general, cross with the Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy (an assured Tim Mead) for beheading his fleeing rival in an attempt to curry favour. This event pushes the murdered man’s distraught wife Cordelia (a compelling Patricia Bardon) and son (here daughter) into hatching plots for revenge, and also draws Caesar into the orbit of would-be ruler Cleopatra (Anna Christy), who disguises herself as a courtesan to solicit his affections to pull him into the intrigues and power-struggles of the Egyptian court. The curtain falls as Caesar and Cleopatra’s combined forces defeat her tyrannical brother Ptolemy, placing her instead, now love-struck, on the Egyptian throne.
In this production, Keegan-Dolan uses dancers throughout to convey the shifting movement that weaves Handel’s music together. Sometimes the dancers function as symbols or sylphs, for example appearing as birds to comfort the lonely Queen or as fawning girls to dote and climb adoringly all over Caesar. At other times they serve to paint a character’s emotion more vividly or convey a sense of overall musical mood.
Keegan-Dolan notes: ‘the presence of the unseen world [gods, Furies, Xephyrs] in Julius Caesar is all the more important as there is a direct relationship between these unseen mythological realities and each character’s psychological disposition, either conscious or unconscious’, going onto add that where lots of libretto has been cut, this has been replaced by an ‘image or an action’ (p18, ENO programme). Dance is seen as a kind of psychological echo chamber, bringing latent feelings to light. Sometimes though it comes on too strongly, obfuscating the singers by literally pushing them to the edges of the stage; or else it can seem too repetitive to capture the complexity of the shifting canvass of dissonance and resolution in the scoring.
The appeal to the invisible, pseudo-civilized world of pagan forces – especially by using ancient Egyptian animals – is convincing though, as giant crocodiles and giraffes are pulled and pushed around the stage, acting as props, as distinct symbols or coming into focus as a part of the action. Here is a production that allows the arias to really speak as stand alone pieces, like snapshots, crystallising a moment of aching emotion or steeled intention in time. The attention to space and colour in set and costume is deftly done, so that each aria could be perfectly captured in a frame and stuck in a photograph book, flicked through afterwards and each composition remain perfectly poised with labels such as ‘grief’, ‘desolation’ or ‘joy’. This seems to communicate something of the Baroque obsession with allocating each vocal whole one emotion, to be conveyed in full by the singer.
The problem is though that as snapshots these arias remain relatively isolated, lacking both a smooth flow from one to another and any strong sense of connection to a broader narrative whole. The work as a unity never comes into clear focus. This is compounded because the central relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra is not given sufficient space: there is little opportunity to take in the commanding measure of the Egyptian Queen, no hint of Cleopatra’s transition from beguiling foreign beauty to genuinely caring for her Roman lover, let alone the honed political mind. The union of these two should be the climax of this piece, her private enchantment of Caesar a lever for turning the vast cogs of empires, but unfortunately it comes across – however affectionately - as a clumsy, tipsy romp of little consequence.
This lack of strong dramatic centre means it is the more emotionally straightforward journey of the two supporting characters that connects to the audience and carries the performance. It almost seems that Cordelia – grief-stricken yet avoiding constant male advances, supporting her daughter while engineering Ptolemy’s death – is the main character – emotionally, morally and in terms of plot. Ptolemy himself grabs particular attention as a camp, unhinged-but-serious despot-like type, all swanky hair and deadly humour, visibly excited by the fear he instils and at one point quite set on stuffing a lathery black giraffe tongue down Cordelia’s throat. His death has touches of ironic humour.
What we get is more the inner world of the characters, their feelings and responses to events, their heartfelt pleas and unabated joy. Perhaps precisely because of the conventions and constraints of the Baroque form - not just musically but also dramatically, the exploration of the chaos and disorder of passion, that war and love tear things wonderfully apart but that order always reasserts itself in the end in a formal unity – this surprising and quite compelling emotional expressiveness can emerge. However, by taking the overarching scaffolding of events and storyline away, what remains may be fulfilling and even exciting on its own terms but as an overall performance remains frustratingly unbalanced and incomplete. The fact that Caesar walks away wearing crocodile shoes, however, is a neat touch.