Composer: G. F. Handel
Director/Choreographer: Michael Keegan-Dolan
Conductor: Christian Curnyn
Reviewer: Emily Pearce
The Public Reviews Rating:
Handel can be a notoriously difficult opera composer to stage – the length of the pieces, along with a rigid structure (recitative, aria, recitative, aria, occasional duet), ensure that directors’ often resort to bizarre measures in order to keep a modern audience’s interest throughout. Here, ENO has employed the Olivier nominated Keegan-Dolan to both direct and choreograph, in collaboration with his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre to mixed effect.
With a cast including Handel heavyweights such as Anna Christy, Laurence Zazzo and Patricia Bardon, this is a superbly sung production, lacking only as a result of a rather surreal staging that, although successful, dips in energy occasionally.
The sparse staging, made from cork, succeeds in providing a suitably dramatic background for the continual bloodshed. With no geographical setting, hunting is the uniting theme used throughout; both alligator and giraffe corpses are paraded in and dismembered by various cast members.
After a slower Act I, Act II gains pace, the direction including plenty of memorable, delicious moments, (one particularly gruesome scene involves the tongue of a dead giraffe and a terrified Cornelia, to shocking effect). With such long arias, often with no respite, it would have been to the production’s benefit to perhaps have included a few more details, as there are long period with seemingly little movement. However, the scenes with dancers really bring this piece to life – movement is used to charming and disarming effect as the dancers’ writhe to reflect the character’s intent.
The cast are uniformly strong. Laurence Zazzo dazzles as Caesar; his coloratura astoundingly clear and precise throughout, to devastating effect. His reputation as the ‘King of Countertenors’ would seem entirely safe were it not for an equally superb performance Tim Mead as Ptolemy, whose beautifully pure voice and smiling face belie the character’s more devious intent to great effect. Anna Christy as Cleopatra manages to be both seductive and vulnerable throughout, never displaced more elegantly than in her dramatic Act II aria ‘Se Pieta’. Patricia Bardon and Danielle Mack provide vengeance and grief aplenty as Cornelia and Sesto (played by a female here, an interesting choice by the creative team) and deliver some of the most haunting and resonating moments of the opera. George Humphreys as Curio also provides excellent support to Zazzo’s Cesear; his towering frame adding great contrast to the lithe dancers.
Handel’s music, when performed at its best, can be a life enhancing experience that captures humanity at the extreme of emotions. However, in order to experience the highlights, often it is necessary to sit through some of the less magnificent musical moments. Here is no exception, and it is a shame that this production, which has delightful highlights, can’t always match the Master’s music.