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A Musical Triumph for Caesar and Cleopatra

Francis Gush (Cesare), Susanna Hurrell (Cleopatra), Kieron Connor-Valentine (Nireno). Photo (c) Richard Hubert Smith.

Giulio Cesare by Handel, English Touring Opera and Circle Singers of Leamington Spa, at the Royal Spa Centre, Leamington Spa on 19 May 2023.

Review by Anne Cee.

It’s just one year shy of 300 years since this opera was first performed in King’s Theatre, Haymarket and yet the story of Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) offers an enduring lesson about power and fate. The cast of just eight singers delivered a confident, pretty performance that flowed beautifully through the trials and tribulations of flawed characters, full of self-importance and ambition during just one short chapter of Rome’s domination of Egypt.

The English Touring Opera have brought together a well-matched blend of voices which is exquisite and incorporates some exciting counter tenor and soprano rising stars. Of particular note in last night’s performance were Cornelia (Carolyn Dobbin) who delivered the many colours of love and grief for her husband, Pompey, and exasperation with her son, Sesto, (Margo Arsane) who is not the killer she wants him to be and who sinks into suicidal despair before ‘redeeming’ himself with a murder.

Francis Gush (Cesare), Susanna Hurrell (Cleopatra) and Edward Jowle (Curio). Photo (c) Richard Hubert Smith.

Tolomeo (Alexander Chance) schemed and bullied his rocky path with a stunning vigour that seemed more than a match for his nemesis Caesar almost to the end when he met his final dagger.

All the while Caesar (Francis Gush) lorded it over the court, dispensing judgment, being admired and deceived, and ultimately rising out of the plots and treachery to triumph with his beautiful, wily, trophy queen, Cleopatra (Susanna Hurrell) who had managed her way through a tide of deceit, seduction and despair to achieve her prize.

If you’re thinking this sounds like a complex setup, you might be right, and in some ways, it’s made more so by the mixing of men and women in the parts, (i.e. male roles being sung by female counter tenors), as well as a sparse set giving the audience few locational clues to help them navigate through the action. So, a bit of pre-show reading paid off for audience members who like to keep on top of the plot.

This production left me with sumptuous images of bronze and turquoise which created the required sense of majesty for the story and the primary characters – Cleopatra in particular made a number of visually stunning entrances which enhanced her dominant position at the pinnacle of the ruling hierarchy.

And although the production was light on props, it did incorporate a well-executed manoeuvre to turn a table into a prison (very well-conceived and delivered), and a memorable glass head as the trophy head of Pompey, Cesare’s enemy. The glass head featured as the focal point for quite a few of the early scenes without ever feeling convincingly human – and perhaps we should be grateful for a sanitised symbol of a severed head on stage rather than having the pristine aesthetic distracted with grotesque realism.

Francis Gush (Cesare) Photo (c) Richard Hubert-Smith.

I was not alone in enjoying this show, whistles and shouts from the audience bounced through the hall as Cesare and Cleopatra claimed the final word.

English Touring Opera are in Leamington Spa all week (19th-26th May) and will also be performing Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia.


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