Review: Giulio Cesare in Egitto

Adi Levin 19 November 2019

George Friederic Handel’s famous Giulio Cesare in Egitto tells the story of Julius Caesar’s (Louisa Stuart-Smith) conquest of the Ptolemaic dynasty and eventual marriage to Queen Cleopatra (Anna-Luise Wagner).

Trinity College Music Society’s production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto, directed by Aida Lahlou and Louisa Stuart-Smith, opened with a triumphant aria in which Pompey’s wife and son (Cornelia and Sesto, played by Lara Cosmetatos and Anita Monserrat, respectively) pay their respects to Caesar.

As the opera was not set on a traditional stage but rather in the Trinity College Chapel, the cast made use of the aisle space as the chorus entered, as well as when Caesar left to prepare for battle. The combination of the cast’s raw talent, the ethereal atmosphere and acoustics of the chapel itself, and the attention to detail evident in the set design and costumes made for an unforgettable operatic experience.

The costumes were carefully designed to reflect elements of each character’s personality whilst making references to antiquity- thus the villainous Tolomeo (Matthew Sargent)  wore a brightly coloured jacket and an eye-catching pair of yellow shoes, while Caesar was dressed in imperial red and crowned with a golden laurel wreath that matched Cleopatra’s glittering dress.

Bringing a two-and-a-half-hour opera to life is no small feat.

Not only did the cast and crew have to cut Giulio Cesare in Egitto by about half, but they also had to appeal to a diverse audience. I myself confess that I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the chapel as the orchestra began to tune their instruments. I was quite intimate with the plot, having translated the libretto into English. While the script is full of colourful insults–at least 20, according to my count– I was worried that the performance might not succeed in capturing and maintaining the audience’s attention. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The cast did an unbelievable job of transitioning from grief (Cornelia’s farewell to Sesto and Cleopatra embracing her handmaidens nearly moved me to tears) to rage to unadulterated joy.

TCMS’ production of Giulio Cesare was filled with seemingly incongruous elements that somehow worked perfectly in the context of the opera. Although Cleopatra’s entrance accompanied by Bollywood dancing and Tolomeo snapping his fingers in a Z-formation were undoubtedly not what I expected from an 18th-century opera, they added a great deal of originality to the performance. There were similarly a number of witty pop culture references. In the aria Venere bella, Lidia prepares for Caesar’s arrival, pretending to shave her legs as she asks Venus to grant her all the graces of the god of love.

Despite the modernity of the comedic references, it is clear that the directors put an incredible amount of thought into their stylistic decisions, from the variety of materials used for the costumes to the fact that the string players used baroque bows and were accompanied by a harpsichord and theorbo, an enormous lute that I admittedly have never heard of but was certainly impressed by.

Lahlou and Stuart-Smith’s rendition of Giulio Cesare in Egitto is a surprisingly harmonious blend of tradition and modernity, humour and raw emotion, brought to life by the cast’s undeniable talent as well as thoughtful aesthetic and stylistic decisions.

5 stars.