Two great enterprises of mid-1720s London came together for this occasion, Handel’s opera seria Giulio Cesare in Egitto, and the Church of St John’s Smith Square. The opera was first given in 1724 in the Haymarket, by a crack team of international star singers. Here it was sung by mostly young (albeit established) singers, and the lively acoustic of this Baroque jewel helped lend their voices weight, bloom and carry. The result was sonically terrific, better than in a dry theatre acoustic. But these singers would have impressed in most settings, such was their skill and commitment.

Tim Mead © Benjamin Ealovega
Tim Mead
© Benjamin Ealovega

In that Haymarket première there would have been much stage spectacle, but this was a concert performance, with scores and music stands for the singers, who nonetheless made moderate and effective use of gesture rather than observing best oratorio behaviour. There were no props – poor Pompey’s remains did not even get an urn for Cesare to sing to in Act 1. No surtitles either, so the audience had to pay for the text and translation, and follow events on the page... not too difficult, of course, and even made us an ‘authentic’ audience, as that is what would have happened in 1724. And no costumes, though at least when Cleopatra was in disguise she covered her bare shoulders in a pashmina. But there was respect for the structural conventions of opera seria in that the singers made exits and entrances as required by the libretto.

This was a pretty complete performance by the Early Opera Company of all 44 numbers as part of the London Handel Festival. This matters in this long work, with its careful design and balancing of plot development, reflected in the sequence (and number) of each character’s arias. And what arias Handel gives them to sing, in a score with barely a weak item. Our titular hero was created for Senesino, the rock star castrato famous for his vocal beauty and brilliant coloratura. The part was superbly sung here by Tim Mead, who has a fine basic sound, largely free even above forte from countertenor ‘hoot’. His agility was dazzling, but also expressively varied according to the dramatic situation. He was especially compelling in the great accompagnato and aria in the third act “Aure, deh, per pietà” (O breezes, for pity’s sake), where his exquisite and long-held first syllable seemed to descend from the skies.

Anna Devin © Victoria Cadisch
Anna Devin
© Victoria Cadisch

The opera could as well have been called Cleopatra, for she like Cesare has eight arias, but it is her situation and motives that drive the action more than his and, like most leading stars, she is last to make her entrance. Anna Devin revelled in the opportunities this role offers, making with complete conviction her journey from scheming minx to mature woman in love. This is not characterisation to rival Antony and Cleopatra, for this is opera seria and the Queen is not taken to the tragic heights of Shakespeare’s “lass unparallel’d”. But within this genre the portrait is full and fascinating and Devin sang it with a really gorgeous sound, and all the technique needed (bar a really birdlike trill perhaps) for impeccable Baroque style. She was as entertaining in her high-handed dismissal of her brother in Act 1 as she was touching in her famous “Piangerò la sorte mia” (Flow my tears) in Act 3. Mead and Devin also combined beautifully in their closing duets.

Rachel Kelly © Gerard Collett
Rachel Kelly
© Gerard Collett

The role of Cornelia is arguably the most affecting since her grief at the loss of her husband Pompey is its unchanging characteristic. But the nobility of her suffering is never wearying, so eloquent is her music. Or so it seemed sung by the wonderful Hilary Summer – and her true alto timbre, richness and range has even encompassed the role of Cesare himself. If in the age of the ubiquitous mezzo-soprano designation, someone should start a Society for the Preservation of the Contralto Voice, I propose Hilary Summers as the SPCV’s first President. Her son Sesto is also a rather one-dimensional part, in his case the dimension being that of vengeful fury at the loss of his father. But Rachel Kelly secured audience cheers each time she gave vent to that anger, spitting out some fiery coloratura. And the wonderful duet for this mother and son that closes Act 1 was a moving highlight. Rupert Enticknap’s countertenor made much of the Tolomeo’s weedling ambition and Callum Thorpe’s bass came close to making that charmless chap Achilla sympathetic. Even countertenor James Hall made a mark as Nireno, despite having no aria. The obbligato solos from the Early Opera Company’s violin, horn and oboe were as eloquent as their vocal partners, and Christian Curnyn was a superbly stylish guide of his long-established, and now seemingly indispensable, artistic enterprise.