Haym and Handel
The Lowry, Salford
13 November, 2019: 3hr 15min
Back after seven years, one of Opera North’s best productions of baroque opera returns, and with a cast that’s almost as universally strong as it was in 2012.
One of them – counter-tenor James Laing as Tolomeo, the narcissistic, psychopathic, moody and lecherous baddie of the story (aka Ptolemy, to ancient historians) – indeed returns to his role, just as horrifyingly antipathetic as before.
The story is of Julius Caesar in Egypt. It opens when his erstwhile Roman rival, Pompey, has already been murdered by Ptolemy – the overture is accompanied by a helpful dumb-show in which we see him knifed by Tolomeo and his general, Achilla.
Ptolemy’s sister and incestuous queen Cleopatra, however, is not only competing with her brother/ husband for supreme rule in Egypt, but also sets out to seduce Caesar. Pompey’s widow, Cornelia, and son, Sesto, are out for revenge, though Cornelia is desperately vulnerable to advances from both Achilla and Ptolemy.
It’s a long piece: Handel’s operas usually are. Most of the scenes are confrontations, and the emotions are strong but unvaried and strictly sequenced (that’s the concept of Affekt).
Given those constraints, any director has to use resources skilfully, and the production by Tim Albery does that. The set is a movable one in two pieces, but they come together and apart and work from different angles, so it can evoke inside and outside, battles and bedrooms (including Cleopatra’s famous bath, in an interior that, if not a burnished throne, looks like a highly burnished boudoir).
The design concept gives the warring nations (Romans and Egyptians) colour-coding and vivid symbolic accessories, such as the Scissorhands-style nail extensions worn by Tolomeo. Credit Leslie Travers for those effects.
The singing, which is for virtuosic performers on all sides, is what counts. Maria Sanner as Cesare (one of two trouser roles for female singers here) is at her best in the more mellow numbers, and though she can hold her own for power when placed front-of-stage, isn’t always given that advantage. James Laing is icily nasty and sustains his energy even when his voice occasionally tires.
But the star of the show in many ways is Lucie Chartin, as Cleopatra. She turns on the sex appeal so much in the first part of the story that she’s in danger of making the character a saucy little tart, but she finds real dignity and pathos later on, turning Piangeró la sorte mia, sung from floor level, into a baroque equivalent of Tosca’s Vissi d’arte, and displaying technical brilliance in her trills and leaps in Da tempeste il legno infranto, as well as a warm mezza voce elsewhere.
Matching her for subtlety is Heather Lowe, one of the Royal Northern College of Music’s best products of recent years, as Sesto. She makes as remarkable a success of it as did Kathryn Rudge, another lovely RNCM high mezzo, in the original production.
Amy J Payne, who took the role of Cornelia on Wednesday, gave a superb performance as Cornelia, full of emotion and vivid acting, and with sustained quality from beginning to end. Handel’s slow, lamenting arias, with the guiding hand of conductor Christian Curnyn, have never sounded better than this.