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Review: Opera North’s Giulio Cesare at The Lowry

Some years ago, I visited the site where Julius Caesar was said to meet his maker.

The Curia in the Theatre Of Pompey is not only a place of significant historical importance but much to my total and utter glee, a colony for feral cats. Cat lovers this is your Mecca, cat not-lovers probably give this a miss and spend more time in the Coliseum (actually cats live in there too – maybe go to Madrid instead).

Handel’s Giulio Cesare comes with the wonderful tagline…

Cleopatra would die for the throne. But she’d rather kill for it.

And so tells the story of Cleopatra and her brother Tolomeo, as they compete for absolute power over Egypt.

Credit: Alastair Muir

Julius Caesar has chased his enemy Pompey to Egypt where he falls into the murderous hands of Tolomeo.

As Pompey’s widow Cornelia plots with son Sesto to get their revenge, Tolomeo is seemingly more concerned by an ‘enemy’ closer to hand…

Credit: Alastair Muir

Well they do say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose…etc and so forth.

Whilst Cleopatra could be lauded as a symbol of a strong independent women, some may take issue with her tactics to secure her position – that is with feminine wiles and good old ‘female of the species’ straightforward seduction of Caesar.

Credit: Alastair Muir

Nobody’s coming out of this registering strong on the moral compass so, moving on…

Sung in Italian, Tim Albery’s production of Handel’s sweeping and passionate operatic tale is accompanied by a wonderful orchestra conducted by Christian Curnyn.

The set is simple, allowing for the marriage between the voices and the music to flourish and entertain without distraction.

Forgive me for perhaps lowering the cultural tone here but I couldn’t help but equate the spirited, competitive and sometimes downright troubling relationship between brother and sister, Tolomeo and Cleopatra, to that of, what for it, the ice-skating, scheming siblings in the very deep and seminal film…Blades of Glory. Even aesthetically.

DO forgive me – I mean this without any of the slapstick but with all of the heart, passion and downright devilment of both pairs.

It’s a pocket of time that is revisited, referenced and paid tribute to both in the history books and in popular culture repeatedly. But whilst time moves on, human passion, ambition and indeed ruthlessness remains.

And with a wonderfully talented cast and production (a statement which will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with the work of Opera North), Giulio Cesare delivers on this age-old story of tyranny and passion in spades.

Cast:

  • Giulio Cesare – Maria Sanner
  • Cleopatra – Lucie Chartin
  • Cornelia – Amy J Payne (special mention who stepped in for Catherine Hopper)
  • Sesto – Heather Lowe
  • Tolomeo – James Laing
  • Noreno – Paul-Antoine Bruno’s-Djian
  • Curio – Dean Robinson
  • Achilla- Darren Jeffery

Opera North continue at The Lowry this week with performances of La Boheme tonight (15 November) and The Greek Passion tomorrow (16 November) at The Lowry.

Have a thousand questions on Opera-going that you never dared ask? Find out more here at https://www.operanorth.co.uk/your-visit/new-to-opera/.

My reviews of previous Opera North productions can be found below:

Review: Aida at the Bridgewater Hall

Theatre review: The Magic Flute at The Lowry

Categories
Culture Manchester Music preview Preview/review The Arts Theatre

Review: Aida at the Bridgewater Hall

Verdi’s Aida is admittedly one of the operas I knew little about, in terms of both narrative and its musical score.

An opera in four acts, Aida is set in Egypt at the time of the Pharoahs. The priesthood, through its self-proclaimed ability to interpret the gods’ will, controls the government and have long been at war with Ethiopia, many Ethiopians becoming enslaved.

Amneris (Alessandra Volpe) is the daughter of the reigning Egyptian King (Michael Druiett), who is in love with Radames (Rafael Rojas), a captain in the Egyptian military, the expectation being that they will marry. There is only one problem; Radames is secretly in love with Aida (Alexandra Zabala), a slave of the Egyptians but significantly, the daughter of the Ethiopian King (Eric Greene). Radames’s love is requited yet smothered. Until it isn’t.

Opera North have a fine back-catalogue, if you will, of productions, but this was a little different to those operas I have seen before.

I don’t say it was unusual per se, but a first for me, and a very pleasant first.

In the beautiful surroundings of the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, the orchestra takes position on the stage, rather than ‘banished’ to the lower level of the pit. Whereas I’m always happy to sit in the circle at such affairs as I love to watch the musicians, on this occasion my position from the stalls was just fine, as the wonderful orchestra, conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong, shared literal centre stage with the singers.

Concert staging, to use the correct term.

Without a set to distract, the cast took their places at the front of the stage as and when the story demanded it. Dressed in simple, modern clothing, the production laid bare only the musical and vocal talent. And what a talent it was.

There was nowhere for the performers to hide and how fortunate it was for myself and fellow theatre-goers that this was the case.

Sung in Italian, with English subtitles, the emotion and passion in the orchestral movements were matched by the beautiful and pitch-perfect vocals.

Indeed in the choir seats, (yes, I know the clue is in the description) it wasn’t clear whether the casually dressed, ‘civvy-clothed’ ensemble of people sat up there were fellow audience members or not (my only clue was the choreographed synchronicity with which they sat down – no messing about with coats and bags for them). My confusion was definitively cleared up when they burst into rapturous harmony and song, the acoustics in the great hall never more tested, never more giving.

Each performer was as charismatic as the last. I was drawn to Alessandra Volpe’s Amneris, the performance and characterisation playful, seductive and powerful until the realisation that her love is gone – her demeanour crumbling before your eyes.

Whilst Alexandra’s Zabala’s Aida is touching, sympathetic and moving in both character and tender performance, your empathy lies with both women –  each vulnerable. Indeed, they are no winners  in this narrative, right down to the very last haunting scene.

Murmurings around me in the interval demonstrated that I was not the only person moved by this wonderful production, and indeed, was a clue to what was to come at ‘final curtain’, with a lengthy, rapturous standing ovation and applause.

Indeed, at the Italian premiere of Aida at La Scala in 1872, the opera was a great success with the public and it seems that in its latest iteration nothing much has changed.

Part of a 12 night tour, Opera North’s Aida can be caught at Hull City Hall on Friday 7 June and finishes at Birmingham Symphony Hall on Tuesday 11 June.

And do, indeed  catch it if you can.

Opera North – Aida

 

Photo credits: Clive Bards (2-7)

The Author (1 and 8)

Categories
Culture Manchester Music Preview/review The Arts Theatre

Theatre review: The Magic Flute at The Lowry

Mozart can do no wrong.

It’s not even up for debate.

When I was knee-high to an etc., I went with my parents to Austria, visiting Salzburg along the way and so to the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The actual birthplace – the house.

My Dad, a professional pianist, was keen to fulfill an important pilgrimage, and so off our family did troop to the threshold of what had become a museum.

My diminutive stature gave me away as being of the child variety and my parents were told I was too young to go in.

I mean I’ve seen Amadeus and know some of Wolfie’s antics were a touch saucy, but surely nothing could be behind those doors  which could cause untold anguish and trauma to a 5 year old (I know really it was more likely that I’d touch a manuscript here, a glockenspiel there, or something).

Anyway my Dad went it alone and some 20 odd years later on a repeat visit, I was finally granted access to the place where one of our greatest composers and musicians made his debut onto the world’s stage

Now the main reason for this preamble is that when I was to visit the house all those years later, as enraptured as I was to be in such an important place, my overriding memory will always be the hugely sinister mannequins in the doorway whose faces were superimposed with the holographic faces of Opera singers treating us to some of Mozart’s finest work – on this occasion, The Magic Flute.

The audio and of course the music was wonderful. The spectacle was nothing short of terrifying.

And so what a contrast to the beautiful production of said opera, brought to the Lowry Theatre by the wonderful Opera North.

The Magic Flute follows the adventures of Prince Tamino (Kang Wang) as he sets off on a quest to rescue Pamina (Vuvu Mpofu) from the clutches of Sarastro – the Priest of the Sun.

The score, of course, will set any rendition off on the right foot but you need the vocals, the musicians, the aesthetic, the acting and the heart of the production to live upto the music – no mean feat.

Just before curtain up, we were informed that male lead, Kang Wang, was suffering a cold and hoped that it didn’t affect our enjoyment. It did not. It really did not. My ear did not detect anything that wasn’t moving, rousing, tuneful and respectful to the piece – goodness knows how he sounds when at full health!

I do not know of the health of female lead, Vuvu Mpofu, but going off her performance, I would say ‘a clean bill’. Spirited, passionate and spectacular.

The orchestra, conducted by Robert Howarth, were both a sight and sound to behold – my elevated position in the circle treated me to the privilege of being to watch the musicians as they performed and felt the score in front of them.

Whilst one could sit back, shut one’s eyes and be taken to a place of joy by the sounds alone, one should really see this production with eyes open (and one should really stop with the ‘one’ thing now).

The visual beauty of the colours, the floral projections and the striking costumes complimented the audio beauty perfectly.

It wasn’t all flowers and birdsong – and speaking of which – there was humour too, brought to us by the wonderful bird-catcher himself, Papageno, with a witty performance from Gavan Ring, bringing the light relief (and a touch of the Irish) to the production.

There was also the early appearance of two huge…tentacles(?)…akin to something out of Beetlejuice and in danger of competing with the unearthly Salzburg mannequins for the ‘Most likely to give me a Mozart-themed nightmare’ award.

Putting my inner-psyche aside, for one moment, this new production, directed by James Brining and designed by Colin Richmond, brought a treat to the senses to all in Salford that evening.

Special mention to the theatre staff who let me in.

For details of future performances, please visit:

https://thelowry.com/whats-on/the-magic-flute/

https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/the-magic-flute/