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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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