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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Serebrennikov's arrest is another step in the erosion of Russia's cultural freedom

The detained director is widely known for challenging more conservative forms of theatre.

“The play opens amid scenery which has already become, it seems, painfully familiar: a room with official furniture and a cage, to which they lead a man in handcuffs.” Thus reads a RIA Novosti review of Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s staging of Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots in Moscow in 2013.

On Wednesday, it was the 47-year-old Kirill Serebrennikov who was led to the cage in handcuffs. Crowds gathered outside chanting “Kirill, Kirill” and “freedom” as he took the stand in a Moscow courtroom after being detained on suspicion of embezzling 68 million roubles (£900,000) of government funds, according to reporters at the scene.

Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest until 19 October awaiting trial. If found guilty, he could face up to ten years in jail. The investigation alleged that house arrest was necessary as Serebrennikov has a Latvian residence permit and real estate abroad. However, authorities had already confiscated his passport at the beginning of August, the director said. Travel abroad would be impossible.

The investigation into Serebrennikov reflects the incremental – yet cumulatively extremely effective –  erosion of freedom of expression that has pervaded Russian cultural politics in recent years. Russia’s legal system implicates vast swathes of its residents, and some have suggested that the processes involved in securing funding for the theatre are near-impossible to navigate.

“The laws governing Russian theater financing are so arcane and contradictory that even a mathematical genius could not run a theater and abide by the law,” theatre critic John Freedman wrote in The Moscow Times in June, as the case started to develop. The investigation is also an example to others who continue to challenge the status quo; locals have spoken of “an atmosphere of fear and hysteria” among (what’s left of) the country’s leading liberal cultural figures.

Serebrennikov was initially remanded on Tuesday by the Russian Investigative Committee’s special investigations department. He has himself previously been critical of artistic censorship and called the accusations against him “absurd”. Supporters are now beginning to draw parallels with Stalinist-era crackdowns.

“Director Meyerhold was not arrested by the NKVD, but by Stalin. Director Serebrennikov was not arrested by the Investigative Committee, he was arrested by Putin,” renowned author Boris Akunin wrote in a public Facebook post on Tuesday. “Russia has moved into a new state of existence with new rules.”

Other key cultural figures have stood by Serebrennikov to support freedom of expression and grimly reflect on present-day realities. Writer and director Viktor Shenderovich told television station Telekanal Dozhd (TV Rain) that even global fame cannot “save you from the interests of a repressive state if it decides that it is in its interests to put you on the ground face down.”

Thousands of people signed a petition demanding his liberation. “Artists should have the right to express their opinion freely. That is guaranteed by our country’s Constitution,” the letter signed by more than 14,300 people as of midday on Wednesday said.

The case, in theory, revolves around funding awarded to a theatre project known as Platform between 2011 and 2014. Three other former colleagues of the director were also detained in connection with the case. However, Serebrennikov’s supporters believe there is more to the story.

Serebrennikov is widely known in Russia for challenging more conservative forms of theatre. He is the head of the Gogol Centre – one of Russia’s more avant-garde institutions. It was here that The Idiots was staged. His originality and talent is widely hailed on the Moscow theatre scene.

At the beginning of July, Serebrennikov’s staging of a ballet exploring the life and work of gay or bisexual ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was postponed. The ballet, according to the New York Times, explored homosexuality in Nureyev’s art and his battle with AIDS, which killed him in 1993.

In a subsequent press conference, the Bolshoi confirmed the postponement of the ballet, with the theatre’s director general Vladimir Urin saying “the ballet was not good” and that he and others were “very depressed” by what they saw. Urin did not state that the homosexual themes played any part in the decisio,n.

On 7 August, Serebrennikov told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that his passport had been seized by authorities. At the same time, he said Urin had contacted him to say that Nureyev would be shown in December this year.