Handel with the score to <i>Messiah</i>
Handel with the score to Messiah
When it is not digging up Donizetti rarities, English Touring Opera can often be found performing Baroque opera. Following last autumn’s triple of The Return of Ulysses, La Calisto and Xerxes, James Conway, artistic director and chief executive of ETO, has decided on a return to the Baroque, choosing Giulio Cesare and Dardanus to open the new season – and it’s entirely understandable why. “I have found that I can cast these operas well,” he explains, “I can collaborate with the Old Street Band, a group of skilled period players with a taste for drama, and I think we can do something very particular with real excellence. We have confidence and form with Baroque opera and, because I love these operas so much myself, you can bet I will be a hound for doing the very best we can for our discerning, generous regional audiences.”

Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto is packed with great arias for all its principals and is a jewel in the Baroque opera crown. Performed uncut, it is also very long. Conway has taken the unusual decision to split Handel’s opera into two parts: The Death of Pompey and Cleopatra’s Needle.

“Whenever we have done Handel opera,” explains Conway, “we've had to cut them down to size. Cesare has four hours of music, give or take, and it is of exceptionally high quality. Each character suffers if you leave out some of the music which tells you who they are, and why they act as they do. The characterisation is very highly developed; you really get a sense of people defined by their struggles with destiny, as it is revealed to them.

“I don't think it is the only way to do it, but I decided this time that we should do every note of it (as no one else does, whatever they say). It's a massive undertaking. I am optimistic about having divided it in two (including a repeated middle section of arias, which we perform in different ways in the two halves), acknowledging the clear preferences of our audiences for opera experiences of less than three hours, so we’re giving Handel's masterpiece over two nights, or over a matinee and evening show.

“Each part will, I hope, feel like a complete show (you can, after all, make your way with a 'previously, on Julius Caesar...' commentary in the Netflix generation), but the cumulative experience should be really special. No one thinks it is odd in the theatre (Shakespeare's histories, Angels in America...) or in the cinema (Tolkien, JK Rowling adaptations) where almost anything that succeeds commercially has sequels and prequels these days. I am hoping that it will create a very special, concentrated community in the theatre, sharing something important... and not flagging after the second interval!” Christopher Ainslie and Soraya Mafi head a fine cast. 

While Handel’s operas (and oratorios) are staged widely in the UK, Jean-Philippe Rameau is seen much more rarely. Described as a tragédie lyrique in five acts, Dardanus was premiered in 1739 and was heavily criticised for its lack of plot, even though it included the appearance of a sea monster! Rameau and his librettist, Leclerc de la Bruère, revised and rewrote the opera in 1744, resulting in a nouvelle tragédie which gains significantly from the addition of a prison scene, the intense monologue “Lieux funestes” for Dardanus in chains, accompanied by mournful bassoons, described by the conductor Marc Minkowski as “the finest haute-contre (high tenor) aria ever written”.

James Conway © Bill Knight
James Conway
© Bill Knight
Conway finds Dardanus “incredibly intense, romantic, distilled. The central characters reveal their inner feelings to a point that must cost them dearly – and gosh, do they love!” The opera is set in ancient Phrygia. Jupiter’s son Dardanus loves Iphise, but she is the daughter of his enemy, Teucer. Dardanus consults Ishmenor, a magician, who gives him a magic wand. Disguised as Ishmenor, Dardanus is visited first by Antenor, then by Iphise, who confesses her love. Dardanus reveals his identity, but Iphise flees. Captured in battle and imprisoned, Dardanus learns that he will be rescued but that his rescuer will die. Iphise has a narrow escape but it’s Antenor, mortally wounded by Dardanus’ soldiers, who is the victim. Teucer and Dardanus make peace and all ends happily.

Rameau’s music is terrific. “Every page has something highly original and exciting, enthuses Conway. “We have also imported just one of the jewels of the earlier version of the opera, Antenor's breathtaking air in which he exclaims that (unrequited) love is even more monstrous than war.” A fine cast, headed by Anthony Gregory in the title role, is directed by Douglas Rintoul who, Conway is confident “will create an honest, poetic staging for this rarely performed work of genius.”

There’s another Baroque element to ETO’s autumn. Following on from the success of their St John Passion, this year they perform Bach’s colossal Mass in B minor, teaming up with choirs at seven venues around the UK. Conducted by Jonathan Peter Kenny, it promises to be as special for the participants as for the audiences.

Click here to view the complete listings for ETO's autumn season.


Article sponsored by English Touring Opera