This Caesar is good – very good. Though requiring some stamina from the audience, music lovers are rewarded with singing that simply knocks your socks off – packaged in a stylish, attractive production.
Granted limited financial resources for sets and lights, first-time opera director Stephen Heathcote (ex Australian ballet) was faced with another challenge – how to create an Egyptian court in the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, which is a space well suited to chamber music but not at all to theatre. In collaboration with designers Stephen Curtis (sets), Alexis George (costumes) and Damien cooper (lighting) Heathcote has eschewed the literal. A dramatically simple set of essentially geometrical shapes, with a recognisable Cleopatra’s needle dominating the landscape, makes no attempt to disguise the hall, and provides a canvas for lighting that strives to integrate the set and the termite-like carvings of the recital centre walls. The gun-metal grey of the set is reminiscent of the surfaces of an aircraft carrier and serves to give a contemporary slant to the setting, reinforcing the time-less theme of warring nations.
Sensual relief is provided by a ceiling to lighting rig tall silken red curtain, which is manipulated throughout by the players to signify changes of scene. Simple but attractive costumes are historically non-specific and too unrelated to each other for my taste; but sensual opulence is again evident with the appearance of a beautiful swathe of blue fabric, manipulated by the dancers to accompany Cleopatra’s enticing aria V’adoro, pupille. This cloth-work and lighting could be used more frequently to enliven the somewhat stark staging, but the over-all effect of tasteful understatement work well for the most part.
Heathcote brings some delightful dance moves to this staging – again, this could have been taken further stylistically – and a lovely eye for the small tableaux that provide visual punctuation during the often long da capo arias.
Heading a home grown, but world class, cast is Sydney born David Hansen as Caesar. Described by a New York critic as a “matinee-idol countertenor”, Hansen has sung a variety of Handel roles around the globe and his confidence with this repertoire shows in his flamboyant coloratura, an impressive evenness and accuracy through all registers, and a startlingly clear top. A musical highlight was when he broke the fourth wall to join the orchestra in the auditorium to sing up a baroque bravura storm.
As Cleopatra, Tiffany Speight who so impressed as Romilda in the VO’s 2009 production of Xerxes, gives a sympathetic, down to earth portrayal of the famous seductress, and brings an easy and delightful style to the famous music.
Warm voiced Mezzo Tania Ferris is full of regal dignity as the bereaved Cornelia; and Dimity Shepherd applies her usual dramatic imagination to the androgynous Nireno, whom I swear is channelling media-queen Carson Kressley.
Scene stealer of the night though is young soprano Jessica Aszodi, as the boy Sesto. Aszodi is a natural and expressive actor, with a fresh voice of outstanding technique and surprising strength when needed, and gives the more experienced members of the company a real run for their money
Making up the remainder of the singing roles are Tobias Cole (a slimy Tolomeo), Anthony Mackey as the faithful Curio and the always impressive Steven Gallop as the brutish Achilla. Four dancers make up the cast as (amongst other things) guards, servants and scenery movers.
Conducting from the continuo in the pit, VO Musical Director Richard Gill inspired Orchestra Victoria to baroque splendour, marred only by occasional inaccuracies.
All in all, this Julius Caesar is a triumph for the still young Victorian Opera, and for emerging director Heathcote. Though vastly different in style from last year’s delightful Xerxes, its strengths far outweigh its occasional weaknesses, with outstanding singing and music making that could be celebrated anywhere on the planet.
This review appears on AussieTheatre.com.