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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage