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.
A. MARTIN UW PHOTOGRAPHY/GETTY IMAGES
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The food trends coming your way in 2017 – from vegan butchers to, er, crickets

Insects are an economical alternative protein source to meat – and tastier than charred pizza base.

Eyeball to eyeball with a crispy cricket, the freeze-dried face of modern meat eating, I find it hard to imagine the UK ever embracing insects as a realistic dinner option, let alone coming round to the idea in the next 12 months. But, once I shut my eyes and bite down, the prospect seems less far-fetched. The flavour, nutty and slightly bitter, reminds me of roasted soya beans, while the texture is as blessedly dry and crunchy as a deep-fried prawn. While I’m not rushing for a second helping – to be fair, they’re completely unseasoned – neither am I reaching for the nearest napkin.

Insects are economical to farm in terms of land and energy and contain an impressive amount of protein. Nicola Lando, whose website, Sous Chef, stocks a variety of food-grade bugs (including the one I’ve just swallowed), believes that, though they’re
a novelty now, “In even a year’s time, they’ll be much less of one.”

I may cringe when I imagine a wing wedged between my molars but Lando points out that the bugs could be ground into flour, and: “Who even thinks about what they put in their protein shake?” (Certainly not me – even the most delicious insect couldn’t convince me to drink one.)

Yet, though insects have already popped up on menus at restaurants from the Michelin-starred Noma to the family favourite Wahaca, I suspect that because of deeply entrenched taboos in these parts, they will remain a niche ingredient for a few years yet.

The impetus behind the idea of introducing them to our diets – the need for the West to cut down its meat consumption – will have more mainstream effects in 2017, however. The number of vegans in this country has risen by 360 per cent in the past decade, and it’s a trend driven by the young: a fifth of 16-to-24-year-olds don’t eat meat.

In response, Britain has its first vegan butchers in the form of Sgaia – which makes “plant-based meats” – and Pret a Manger’s vegetarian pop-up in London’s Soho has not only become permanent but is expanding, much to the annoyance of a BLT-loving friend who works nearby.

This is shaping up to be a pretty worthy year for food. You’ll find grains you’ve never heard of in your breakfast cereal (M&S has launched some quinoa and sorghum clusters, while buckwheat sales at Waitrose are up 82 per cent). Meanwhile, sugar will be the new saturated fat, with government plans for a soft drinks tax nearing fruition, and the metropolitan elites are still krazy for fermented things such as koji, kefir, kombucha, kimchi and other suspiciously scented things beginning with K that are believed to be good for our gut.

Lest all this feels a bit dour, there is tropical sunshine on the horizon in the form of Hawaiian food, and I’m not talking about pineapple pizzas, which were, it turns out, created in Canada. Poke (pronounced “po-kay”), a Japanese-influenced raw fish salad, is tipped to be the “must-eat snack of 2017”, according to Waitrose: you’ll find it on the menu at Yo! Sushi and, in a veggie version, at Pret.

Barbecue will still be big and beefy. Charcoal will sneak into everything – black pizza bases may taste like dog biscuits but they look great on social media – and Mexican tacos are the new burritos. (Tacos are often deliciously meaty, greasy and smothered in sour cream. They even come stuffed with chocolate in Liverpool. There is hope for the year after all.)

We might well need a bit of deep-fried comfort in the months to come because, sadly, the winner of my Prediction Most Likely to Come True Award is Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City, University of London, who forecasts “a tsunami” of food prices courtesy of – you guessed it – Brexit. Have a good 2017, everyone. Hang on to your Marmite while you can.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era