Julius Caesar

ENO's new production fails to enthrall.

Given the revival in the fortunes of baroque opera - an increasing popularity that means a good Giulio Cesare or Alcina can almost rival a Mozart opera for audience - it’s astonishing how many directors still refuse to trust their material. Fearing that our attention might wander during da capo arias, we are treated to all manner of energetic distractions – everything from calisthenics to copulation – in the hope that we won’t pack it all in and head home to catch the end of Homeland. It’s patronising, and above all it fatally misunderstands the music it is supposed to champion.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s new Julius Caesar for English National Opera is a classic of the genre. “Just keep dancing and they won’t notice that it’s a bit long,” seems to be the motto of the director-choreographer of Fabulous Beast dance company. We’ve seen the success of a dance-integrated production in Glyndebourne’s magnificent (and above all intelligent) Bollywood approach, but where David McVicar used dance as an extension of the drama in the score, Keegan-Dolan’s pounding troupe resemble nothing so much as Lucinda Childs’ choreography for Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. While dance there is crucially a rejection of meaning, a palate cleanser from the work’s dense dramatic symbolism, here it must supplement Handel’s delicate character-portraits. Far from externalised emotion what we got was old school “park and bark” with a stylish keep-fit class happening in the background.

All of which could have been saved by a strong concept or the singers themselves supplying the psychology Handel’s score offers up in handfuls. What we got however was an evening of excellent technical performances framed in a half-hearted dramatic concept. With Caesar strutting about in Stetson and cowboy boots (not to mention the selection of big game trophies, still bleeding and fresh from the kill) it’s safe to assume we were supposed to extract some sort of American, colonialist parallel from this classical tale of conquering oppressors.

As it was, the acres of MDF and a contemporary-dress cast who seemed to incorporate everything from a Swedish masseuse to a chorus of winged vultures, couldn’t quite make their case. And why the additional gender-bending? It’s not as though Handel’s operas are short on girls playing boys (dressed as girls), so to transform Sesto, a young boy so poignantly attempting to become a man and revenge the murder of his father, into a girl rather misses the point. It gains a laugh when she challenges the evil Ptolemy to single combat, but little else.

In the pit Christian Curnyn shaped a stylish, if rather careful period reading, which was echoed in most of the singing. Patricia Bardon’s tragic, epic Cornelia was worth enduring any amount of bleeding alligators for. Her lower register is the magisterial stuff of dreams, and paired with Daniela Mack’s punchy Sesto almost made headlines out of a sub-plot. Their duet “Son nata a lagrimar” – a rare moment of stillness, allowing the music to do its work – felt like the truth the rest of the opera so glossily lacked.

Tim Mead’s sadistic Ptolemy (sporting a wig Javier Bardem’s No Country For Old Men villain would be proud of) was another win – a cruelly impotent tyrant who gets his kicks from hitting croquet balls off the mouths of his harem. Balancing some elegant singing with just enough character, Mead once again threatened to steal the show out from under the principal countertenor. Lawrence Zazzo (Caesar), usually a powerful dramatic force, just wasn’t on form on this second night of the run. Vocally underpowered, he struggled to bring much beyond macho poseur to his relationship with Anna Christy’s Cleopatra, whose glorious singing in turn lacked the sex, the shadow-under-the-eyes grubbiness, that a much less technically accomplished singer like Danielle de Niese brings so convincingly to the role.

Among, admittedly, a fair number of baroque duds, Julius Caesar is a stand-out – a work whose plausible portrait of flawed human psychology integrates text and music into a true dramma per musica, a drama through music. You can play it for polished comedy or all-out tragedy and both will work, but underestimate and hobble its originality, as Keegan-Dolan does here, and it will fall apart in your hands. A shame, in every sense.

Handel's Julius Ceasar in 1725. Photo: Getty Images.
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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit