On paper, there’s nothing inherently wrong with presenting Handel’s epic Giulio Cesare, his longest theatrical work, absolutely complete, resplendent in all its glory, every da capo lovingly exposed. Splitting the almost five-hour work into two performances should, one would think, make it even more accessible, allowing the magic to lie, suspended, between performances on consecutive evenings and, on a few occasions such as last Saturday, spaced with just a few hours in between.

Christopher Ainslie (Giulio Cesare) and Soraya Mafi (Cleopatra) © Richard Hubert Smith
Christopher Ainslie (Giulio Cesare) and Soraya Mafi (Cleopatra)
© Richard Hubert Smith

In theory, a great idea – Handel laboured over each and every aria and it seems right to do the whole work justice – but in English Touring Opera’s incarnation we are unfortunately often reminded of the reasons why this isn’t normally done. Director James Conway insists that “the music and drama are of a consistently high quality and we did not want to cut a lot of it”, but this is just untrue. Some of the real gems get lost in needless frippery and recitative and sideline arias from minor characters which do little to serve the piece. Cesare suffers a little in general from not having the most exciting plot and Conway’s vision is, in any case, frustratingly static.

One gets the feeling that the idea is, by and large, to let the music speak for itself while the soloists plant themselves in the centre of the stage and sing. Some arias suit this – Soraya Mafi, dazzling as Cleopatra, was heartbreakingly beautiful in “Piangerò la sorte mia”, while her duet with Christopher Ainslie’s Caesar, “Caro! – Bella! – Più amabile beltà” is mesmerising. But so many of these arias need more energy, more intensity, although not, as in Sesto’s (Kitty Whately) “L'aure che spirawhere metal tables were straddled and grasped in a series of bizarre contortions, to the extent of silliness.

Catherine Carby (Cornelia), Benjamin Bevan (Achilla) and Kitty Whately (Sesto) © Richard Hubert Smith
Catherine Carby (Cornelia), Benjamin Bevan (Achilla) and Kitty Whately (Sesto)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Despite some sublime and sensitive playing by the Old Street band under Jonathan Peter Kelly’s vivacious baton, the whole affair felt a bit daft. Silly dress, supposedly evocative of Handel’s time but feeling very much like costume, with silly wigs – mercifully abandoned by Caesar halfway through, but sadly not by Tolomeo (Benjamin Williamson) who strutted around like a peacock, never quite managing to be as threatening as his actions suggested. Lest we forget, it was by Tolomeo's hand that Pompey was slain, creating the entire premise for this opera. We feel that we are meant to laugh at him, but the lack of menace – not helped by the many awkward jumps across register – left him feeling flat. By contrast, his ally Achilla, sung by Benjamin Bevan, looked as much pantomime villain as is possible in a Handel opera.

Christopher Ainslie (Giulio Cesare) and Soraya Mafi (Cleopatra) © Richard Hubert Smith
Christopher Ainslie (Giulio Cesare) and Soraya Mafi (Cleopatra)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Coredlia Chisholm’s set is inoffensive but there’s not enough interest to distract during the many underwhelming moments. Evocative lighting from Mark Howland helps somewhat (excusing the tacky fire projections, while ‘BATTLE’ shines from the subtitle screens), and there are moments where we are grateful for the necessity to focus on the music... only, perhaps, not for five and a half hours. The few props are handled far too often – poor Pompey is thrown all over the place as his ashes are tipped and sprinkled here, there, and everywhere. Perhaps we were meant to feel that his spectre is looming over every scene, overhanging the plot.

Benjamin Williamson (Tolomeo) and Catherine Carby (Cornelia) © Richard Hubert Smith
Benjamin Williamson (Tolomeo) and Catherine Carby (Cornelia)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The biggest flaw, however, was the repetition of a good 45 minutes of the first show, The Death of Pompey, at the beginning of the second, Cleopatra’s Needle. I could, to be fair, have listened to Mafi’s devastating “Se pietà” another hundred times without complaint, but the rest of it wasn’t especially thrilling first time round. 

Handel's music speaks for itself, and the singing was, in general, remarkably pleasant – Catherine Carby’s stoic Cornelia, in duet with Whately in “Son nata a lagrimar”, was wonderfully poised, and although Ainslie’s Caesar was a tad underwhelming, there was enough body in his runs to pull off the flawed, but ultimately victorious, leader of the world.

This is an ambitious project which doesn’t always hit the mark. Conway hasn’t quite convinced us that Giulio Cesare should be performed in its entirety. But for the moments of real sublimity, it would appear to be worth the slog.