Review: Memorable weekend of opera

Dardanus, presented by English Touring Opera.
Dardanus, presented by English Touring Opera.

English Touring Opera’s autumn tour brought us two great baroque works: Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Rameau’s Dardanus. Both classical tales of war and forbidden love, they share a basic set but they are very different. Handel’s work is in the grand Italian style, whilst Rameau’s more restrained but expressive French style also includes melodic recitative.

Dardanus by Jean-Phillipe Rameau

This production of Rameau’s masterpiece is ETO’s first foray into French Baroque opera. It is rarely performed yet it contains some of the composer’s finest music. Its musical forms are richly varied and its emotional range is vast with the complex music always expressing the feelings behind the words. In a talented cast, Timothy Nelson is outstanding with his powerful baritone and fine acting in the role of Antenor, Dardanus’s rival. The small chorus is lively and impressive.

The set was transformed by the lighting, turning a bleak concrete bunker, strewn with the ashes of the dead, into imposing palace walls. The choreography was also powerful, especially in the final scene.

Giulio Cesare by Frederik Handel

The director, James Conway chose to stage this well-known opera complete, but because of its length he made it into two separate performances. In Buxton they were a matinee and evening performance on the same day. To enable the second performance to stand alone, there is some repetition to introduce part two. This holds up the narrative but allows us to hear some wonderful arias twice.

Soraya Mafi is outstanding as Cleopatra and her Se Pietà was a joy to hear again. The singing and acting is excellent throughout. Christopher Ainslie is exceptional as Caesar, and his countertenor truly thrilling.

Seating the choir of the Buxton Musical Society in the audience, really pulled the whole audience into the drama in the first and last scenes of part one.

This production of the well know Roman story was set in 1724, the year of the premiere. The Romans became Protestants, the Egyptians Catholics but the corruption and scheming remained. On the whole this worked, though a titter ran through the audience when Cleopatra presented herself to Caesar as a goddess, dressed as the Virgin Mary.

The costumes and lighting were rich and colourful, with a sumptuous imperial theme of gold and turquoise. The Old Street Band was on great form, conducted by Jonathan Peter Kenny.

These three performances together made a memorable weekend at Buxton Opera House.