English Touring Opera’s Giulio Cesare made headlines when it premiered in 2017 for artistic director James Conway’s decision to present Handel’s uncut score, da capos and all, over the course of two evenings. Revived for the first time, the show has mercifully been trimmed down to a neat three hours. Although the show still drags in parts, standout musical performances help the evening fly by most enjoyably. 

Susanna Hurrell (Cleopatra) © Jane Hobson
Susanna Hurrell (Cleopatra)
© Jane Hobson

The primary culprit is Conway’s production, relocated to the year of the opera’s premiere. Though the Baroque costumes and Cordelia Chisholm’s gilded set look sumptuous, Conway’s direction has frustratingly little direction and most of the time the singers are simply left to stand and deliver. The whole evening has an air of general seriousness about it but – a hiliariously foppish Tolomeo apart – largely misses the humour and political satire of Nicola Francesco Haym’s libretto.

Musically, things were on far more engaging form, with conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny dancing his way through the score with aplomb. The Old Street Band played with crisp attack and vibrant sound, solo lines embellished with dazzling ornaments. Casting was strong across the board, with Bradley Travis’ Curio making a strong impression from the very beginning. Edward Hawkins’ towering Achilla was another standout, making the most of the character’s brief arias.

<i>Giulio Cesare</i> © Jane Hobson
Giulio Cesare
© Jane Hobson

In the title role, countertenor Clint van der Linde was a vocal marvel, effortlessly projected throughout his range and displaying fine coloratura. It was his legato singing, however, that impressed most, spinning out the long lines of “Aure, deh per pietà” with silvery tone. Dramatically though, he was a rather vague presence, convincing neither as warrior nor lover. In contrast, Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian used his inky countertenor to brilliant dramatic effect, oozing vulgar charm in his over-the-top Sun King outfits as Tolomeo. 

As the tortured Sesto, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately sang with poised musicality, with “Cara speme” a particular highlight. Although Whately’s vulnerable mezzo convincingly depicted Sesto’s youth, her voice sounded one size too small for the venue and was frequently covered by the orchestra. Similarly, Ann Taylor’s Cornelia sounded underpowered and metallic, though she was easily the most convincing actor on stage, turning the usually sympathetic character into something far more complex.

<i>Giulio Cesare</i> © Jane Hobson
Giulio Cesare
© Jane Hobson

But, as it should be, the evening was dominated by Susanna Hurrell’s Cleopatra. Tall and imperiously beautiful, Hurrell charted Cleopatra’s journey from frivolous sex kitten to commanding queen. Her vibrant, agile lyric soprano easily encompassed the demands of the role, from a wonderfully lush “V’adoro pupille” to an athletic “Da tempeste”. Best of all, though, were her two central laments, devastatingly vulnerable and daring in her pianissimo high notes. A queen to conquer Caesar, but also the entire audience.

***11