Albery dodges Handel pitfalls as he lines up Cesare to open

Opera North's new production of Madama Butterfly. Photo:  Clive Barda
Opera North's new production of Madama Butterfly. Photo: Clive Barda
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As the curtain goes up on another Opera North production, David Denton looks at what the rest of the winter season holds.

Even experienced opera directors have fallen foul of Handel. Tim Albery, who opens Opera North’s winter season with Handel’s Giulio Cesare hopes not to be one of them.

“Modern audiences are totally different in their expectations to those who would have seen Handel operas when they were first staged, and the fact it is only in the past 40 years they have found their way back into the repertoire is largely due to production difficulties,” he says.

“Apparently the first Cleopatra was a grossly overweight soprano, that didn’t seem to matter at that time, but today we have to create totally believable operas from beginning to end, and within a time frame that is acceptable. If we had performed the original score, it would have required the spectacular staging that was typical in Handel’s time, and that could well have lasted around four and a half hours.

“So we needed to make some adjustments and took the decision to have just one interval mid-way through the second act, which has the effect of creating two acts rather than the original three.

“It has also meant butchering some of the recitatives which were repetitive and today’s audiences will easily link the arias without the action being spelled out. Handel rather left out the fact that for Cleopatra it was love at first sight when she met Cesare, who had just conquered the Egypt that she and her brother, Tolomeo, ruled, and we have had to make that clear.

“Then we wanted the story to relate to more recent times. Though we still have people fighting with swords. the set allows the action to unfold in a rather fluid and transforming way.”

The major decision came, as with most Baroque operas, in casting the role of Cesare, which was originally written for a male castrato. Opinion is now divided between using a counter-tenor or a female alto in male costume.

“That was largely solved by the possibility of having Pamela Helen Stephen. She has the weighty voice of a male singer,” continues Albery. “We thought it was far more appropriate to a warrior soldier than the lightweight quality of a counter-tenor. It also gives a contrast for the all-conquering Cesare with the high male voice of James Laing in the much weaker character of Tolomeo.

“Sarah Tynan is a singer young enough for Cleoptara and already much experienced in Handel operas, and in Ann Taylor I think we have ideally cast the part of Cornelia, a widow and a mother, who still has to look attractive enough to turn the heads of other men.”

The season is shared with a new production of Bellini’s Norma, another opera on the subject of Roman aggression that had been forgotten until the 1950s when Maria Callas used the virtuoso leading role to showcase her voice.

Making her UK debut in Leeds, following a sensational Salome in Vienna, comes the exciting young Dutch soprano, Annemarie Kremer. She is partnered by the Mexican tenor Luis Chapa who has enjoyed a series of acclaimed appearances in Verdi’s Don Carlos and Radames in Aida for Welsh National Opera.

Conductor, Oliver von Dohnanyi, makes a long-overdue return to Opera North; Christopher Alden directs.

A return of Tim Albery’s 2007 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly features Anne Sophie Duprels reprising her moving portrayal of the betrayed Japanese bride.

Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre, January 14 to February 18.

For tickets call 0844 848 2706 or www.leedsgrandtheatre.com

A trio of operas for winter

Giulio Cesare: Handel lavished some of his most seductive music on a score which tells of murder, battles, plots and counter-plots before Cesare and Cleopatra emerge triumphant in both love and war.

Madama Butterfly: One of the world’s best-loved operas tells the story of a young woman whose innocent love is rewarded only with betrayal. Widely regarded as Puccini’s masterpiece, it contains the moving Humming chorus and Butterfly’s aria One Fine Day.

Norma: Bellini’s opera of fierce battle, passion and sacrifice includes the aria Casta diva which made legends of both Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.

Opera North will be staging free pre-show talks ahead of performances of both Giulio Cesare and Norma.