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11 October, 2006

Top-rate Julius Caesar at Sydney Opera House

Julius Caesar. GF Handel. Sydney Opera House

Thursday 5th October

CaesarTobias Cole (counter tenor)
CleopatraEmma Matthews (soprano)
CorneliaCatherine Carby (mezzo soprano)
SestoPamela Helen Stephen (mezzo soprano)
AchillaStephen Bennett (bass)
PtolomeoChristopher Field (counter tenor)
NirenoDaniel Goodwin (counter tenor)
ConductorRichard Hickox
Solo ViolinHuy-Nguyen Bui

Dear Colleagues,

One would have to travel a long way to find a performance of equal quality, originality and balance. We were privileged to hear Emma Matthews in one of her finest and most challenging roles as Caesar's Cleopatra. The production by Francisco Negrin and Anthony Baker has an eclectic, diverse and yet meaningful series of settings for the alternating love and hate themes of the opera. We start with a decapitated head (Pompey) and 3½ hours later we have witnessed grand seduction, attempted rape, foul murder, conspiracy, treason, slander, assault, breach of promise, exposure, near-nudity and near-drowning, making a veritable text book of the criminal law.

Extraordinary arias of ever increasing difficulty came from the last female pharaoh, starting with 'Non disperar'. "V'adoro, pupille .. " must be one of the best known Handelian moments after the so-called 'Largo') then to a phenomenal "Da tempesta .. " near the finale. Matthews' voice is crystal clear, accurate and pleasing to the ear. Her acting is confident and persuasive.

The production consisted of numerous settings, each framed with four walls of black and white traditional hieroglyph writing. There were shades of a King Tut exhibition and Mme Tussaud's wax museum with stuffed and gilded African animals, snakes, jewellery, gems and clothing housed in glass cases. One scene was bravely set in a steam room (akin to the NYCO Viaggio) while others took place in a tiled bathing pool room, palace halls and ?quay-side. The lighting was ingenious, particularly in the dining scene.

Tobias Cole has a pleasing, youthful counter-tenor voice. In the lower register he sounds distinctly tenor-like which I do not find off-putting at all. But I have always had a problem with the ruler of the known world singing alto. That is my problem, however, and Cole sings in key, sensitively and with a confidence which hardly seemed in doubt on opening night. Apart from his other set pieces, Cole also has a magnificent show-stopping tour-de-force in his 'duet' with the gypsy violin. Singing in counter tenor register, Mr Cole was able to give his violin partner a run for his money, although the strings always 'win', or at least retreat to allow an honorable dead heat.

Pamela Stephen was the surprise of the night. She played this pants role with charm, dignity and vocal fullness which would be hard to beat. Even more challenging, she was required to almost strip naked which she managed while remaining 'boyishly' in character. Few of the mezzos we know could have done this dual feat in my opinion. Australian audiences are accustomed to a diva's husband being on the podium.

It was a pleasure to hear Stephen Bennett again as hapless Egyptian General, especially amongst the sea of sopranos. I think it is high time we heard Caesar himself as a bass-baritone again to more fairly balance the voices in this Handel masterwork. As we lack castratos these days, we can never know exactly what the opera sounded like originally.

Catherine Carby sang well as Cornelia, but like much of the evening, some of her arias could well have been trimmed without loss to the drama. This production is a needlessly long night in the theatre for audience and performers alike (7pm to 11.20pm). In Handel's day few people probably sat through an entire opera uninterrupted. It was Wagner who brought some discipline to such matters. It is a credit to the Australian company that the third act had almost as many seats filled as the first. Some missed the early start, however.

The supporting cast and chorus were also of the highest standard, including the two other counter tenors, Christopher Field and Daniel Goodwin. One must forgive occasional blurts from the brass, especially when they are placed in the auditorium which now seems 'de rigueur'. That aside, the musicians were excellent, ably led by Richard Hickox along with harpsichord and theorbo in keeping with the period. I recall Jane Glover saying that to be successful in Handel, one had to know not only where the important melodic pauses were, but also the REASON why they were put there. It must help to be English.

There are five more performances during October and a better opera experience would be hard to find.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..