sat 20/07/2024

Giulio Cesare, Blackwater Valley Opera Festival review - characterful, lustrous Handel on parade | reviews, news & interviews

Giulio Cesare, Blackwater Valley Opera Festival review - characterful, lustrous Handel on parade

Giulio Cesare, Blackwater Valley Opera Festival review - characterful, lustrous Handel on parade

An infinitely various cast compels as the splendour falls on castle walls

Ingeborg Bröcheler greets the crowds at the start of 'Giulio Cesare'Blackwater Valley Opera Festival

Recreating Handel’s Egypt with a first-rate cast on the summer opera scene could have been the exclusive domain of Glyndebourne, bringing back its revival of David McVicar’s celebrated Giulio Cesare in July. Yet over the Irish sea, in the grounds of a castle with exquisite gardens above the lushly wooded valley of the river Blackwater, they’ve pulled it off. This is a singular triumph of which Caesar would be proud.

Modest budgeting means a spare but effective and unfussy production from Tom Creed which brings out the best in everyone, and the Irish Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan, no less, is there to serve at one remove. As in the 2022 Orfeo ed Euridice, the players are stuck in a byre to the left of the audience, McGegan visible to those on stage via two large screens. The strings, running to a luxurious 19, still have to cope with the dryness, but acoustically it’s an improvement, with a wooden platform underneath the orchestra, and excellent obbligato players, including the fearlessly ornamenting horn-player Anna Drysdale, come closer to the action. Anna Devn as Cleopatre in 'Giulio Cesare'The singers are never less than transfixing, though it’s the world-class Irish, or Irish-born, contingent which delivers flawlessly. Anna Devin’s achievement as an infinitely various Cleopatra (pictured above) will not be eclipsed by Louise Alder’s eagerly-awaited characterisation at Glyndebourne. The joyous, sometimes sinuous ornamentations dazzle, and the depths are truly sounded with ravishing soft singing in “Se pietà” and “Piangerò” when the Egyptian queen finds herself in danger.

Equally dignified in distress is Carolyn Holt’s Cornelia, widow of the decapitated Pompeo, resonating with true contralto grief to offset the brighter tones of the marvellous Sharon Carty as her son Sesto, style-perfect. Though Creed’s production often lets the singers deliver without fuss, the arrest of mother and son is vividly realized with the eight-strong young chorus, called upon to act much more often than to sing, multiplying the energy as Holt and Carty move us with one of the two great duets in the opera. (scene pictured below wth Carty left and Holt right) Scene from Giiulio CesareAlso rock-solid is American baritone Dean Murphy, returning with aplomb to his Irish roots as Tolomeo’s henchman Achilla – luxury casting fulfilled to perfection. The power-wielders are, perhaps appropriately, more capricious. Creed should have got award-winning German countertenor Nils Wanderer to cut down on the mincing of a Ptolemy it’s hard to (p)tolerate – very often you have to look at the singers for whom less is more – and his technique is, shall, we say, singular, with some trumpet-like top notes and a lower register out of falsetto, and not much connecting line. But vocally he’s certainly compelling. Charismatic, too, and always strong in character, is Ingeborg Bröcheler’s Cesare, at first a strutting popinjay with Lea DeLaria’s hair and look-at-me-ness, evolving as a human being in true Handel manner: a contralto of a very different kind to Holt, not always easy with the runs and sometimes losing pitch, but ultimately very endearing.

As so often in a work that English Touring Opera had to split into two evenings at full length, much has been cut, so second countertenor Iestyn Morris and bass Fionn Ó hAlmhain get even less to do. The pacing mostly feels right, except for the rapid jump between resurrected Caesar’s resolve to go and rescue Cleopatra and its achievement: cue blackout. The lighting after dark is good: Aedín Cosgrove deals with it well, and her set is dominated by giant statues of hippopotamus god Tawaret and cat goddess Bastet, produced from crates at the start, which let the singers, Cleopatra and Tolomeo especially, use them as they will. Catherine Fay’s costumes offer some handsome silks, but not always a good ensemble for each character. Nicholas McGegan with the principals of 'Giulio Cesare'Still, the evening passes mostly in a spirit of delight, the jackdaws, wagtails and starlings providing a vocal and visual counterpoint before the interval – referenced spiritedly by Bröcheler as more than metaphor in “Se in fiorito ameno prato,” though still outdone by Julia Kuhn’s violin carolling. The gardens of Lismore Castle surpass anything any English country opera setting has to offer - that's saying something given the floral wonders of Glyndebourne and the walled garden of the Wormsley estate which hosts Garsington Opera - and the whole atmosphere of relaxed enjoyment meets with the utmost discipline from singers and players (pictured above: the principals and McGegan salute the IBO).

I only caught one of the many events around the opera production, a genial, excellently programmed and presented recital at nearby Salterbridge House from present and previous winners of the BVOF/Royal Irish Academy of Music John Pollard Bursary, tenors Rory Lynch and Seán Tester and pianist Ella Nagy (also turning in a tumultuous yet crystal-clear Liszt Second Hungarian Rhapsody). As for the Cesare, I’d happily sit through it all again.

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