It is quite a rarity, at least for Roman opera houses, to open a new season with a world premiere. The last time such an attempt was made was no later than 1901, when the Teatro Costanzi staged Mascagni's Le maschere. All the more reason to be enthusiastic about the Teatro dell'Opera's decision to begin their season with Giorgio Battistelli and Ian Burton's commissioned opera, Julius Caesar. The production also seals conductor Daniele Gatti's departure from the theatre as its music director, a role which he undertook in 2018. This made it particularly significant for Gatti to conduct the work, which he has called his “parting gift to Rome”.

The assassination of Caesar
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Opera di Roma

Julius Caesar marks the continuation of a collaboration between Battistelli and Burton which began years ago with another Shakespeare-inspired opera, Richard III. By the librettist's own admission, this constitutes the second chapter of a Shakespearean trilogy the two artists have been working on, the third and last title being based on the late, lesser-known Pericles. Here, Burton re-adapts the original play in expected fashion, occasionally modernising the text and cutting many of the characters to reduce the plot to its essentials. The results are well-structured and compelling. The first act closes on Caesar's assassination and Antony's prophecy of civil mayhem, while the second shows the aftermath of the murder, with Caesar's ghost haunting the conspirators, and the rise of Octavius. While carrying Caesar's name, the work seems to revolve around Brutus, whose tormented sensibility is the direct expression of a time of extreme uncertainty and political disruption. Maybe unexpectedly, Julius Caesar proves to be an introspective opera whose public, political surface is the premise for an intimate, private investigation on morality and guilt.

Scott Wilde (Decius), Elliot Madore (Brutus), Clive Bayley (Caesar)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Opera di Roma

Battistelli took his cue from Burton's libretto, composing music that is more about underlying psychological tensions than the unfolding actions. His music language is hardly arduous for contemporary audiences, especially since it admittedly draws from a repertoire which we have now accepted as a part of tradition – Stockhausen, Berio, or even Richard Strauss and Wagner. Still, Julius Caesar certainly has its own sound: long chordal blocks or repeated patterns in the strings above which there break out violent outbursts from the brass, while a diverse set of percussion range from occasional punctuation to more pervasive appearances.

Ruxandra Donose (Calpurnia) and Clive Bayley (Caesar)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Opera di Roma

 The score simmers with turmoil and unrest, but such relentlessness – especially in the first act – eventually reaches a limit. While meaning to convey a general feeling of ominous turbulence, Battistelli's music lacks in dramatic efficacy; it creates an overall mood rather than a narrative. This wouldn't necessarily be problematic, but in the case of Julius Caesar such uniformity may appear monotonous. Then again, the score has some impressive scenes and fascinating timbral choices, the composer achieving a mesmerising effect by carefully mixing orchestral sounds with an off-stage chorus. This wouldn't have been possible without the meticulous performance of the Coro del Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, whose dynamic and rhythmic mastery was commendable; nor without Gatti, who conducted with insightful precision thanks to his scrupulous control of volumes and timbres, thus emphasising the merits of Battistelli's score.

Elliot Madore (Brutus)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Opera di Roma

The vocal cast was also of excellent quality, proving able to make the most of the declamato type of singing. Thanks to his acting skills and sensible phrasing, bass Clive Bayley managed to portray a multifaceted Caesar. Elliot Madore sang Brutus with a dignified, tormented melancholy that was most fitting, and Dominic Sedgwick's firm baritone channelled Antony's prophetical, vengeful authority. Special mention goes to Ruxandra Donose, who sang Calpurnia, the only female role in the opera, with great warmth and brilliant artistry.

Clive Bayley (Caesar) and Dominic Sedgwick (Antony)
© Fabrizio Sansoni | Opera di Roma

Robert Carsen's staging was not so convincing. The Canadian director chose to set the opera in today's Italian Senate, intending, of course, to comment on the timelessness of political dynamics, but when it comes to facing the duality of the plot, the interaction of public and private, Carsen just resolves to a basic change of scenery to Caesar's apartment. Most of the first act is built around the succession of two such settings, which seems a static, uninspired choice. It is not until the end of the act that things change, when during Antony's soliloquy the theatre's lights are progressively switched on as to gradually break the fourth wall and address the audience. The second act, set in the dark at the rear of the Senate, benefits from evocative lighting, which makes the ghost scenes quite striking. This provides a good contrast with the mostly red, warm palette of the first act, resulting in a visually appealing staging that partially makes up for its lack of dynamism. But the production met with general success, a most pleasing outcome for a world premiere.

****1