They came, they sang, they conquered. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Giulio Cesare and Louise Alder as Cleopatra used their 230 minutes on the Glyndebourne stage at the opening performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare to vault from the status of commented upon up-and-comers to stardom. 

They really were that good. As was the rest of the cast, but the lead duo stole the show. Applause and curtain calls lasted so long I caught the last direct train back to London only by the skin of my teeth. 

Fellow Glyndebourne passengers were struggling with empty hampers, knapsacks, collapsible chairs, impossibly complex picnic devices bought in error on eBay, all the while emoting at high volume. Their ecstatic reaction has since been matched by a consensus of rave reviews. I am raving, too.

The original David McVicar production in 2005 had propelled Danielle de Niese to prominence. Back then, her Giulio Cesare was the superb mezzo soprano Sara Connelly. A toga role, I suppose. 

Could it happen again, at an almost 25-year revival? “Revival” does not do this production justice. Smells like a corpse exhumed from a dank grave. This McVicar production is no old hat. It is one of the best things he has done in his career, and he was on hand to oversee the project with a fresh eye.

On arrival at Glyndebourne, in The Long Bar pre-performance, there was visible evidence of his presence. A squadron of highly interested, scrabbling schnauzers was being exercised on the terrace at a speed that threatened their doomed custodian’s balance. Where be schnauzers, there be McVicar.  

Nussbaum Cohen told me the now “sénior terrible” Scottish director had been on the set for every day of rehearsals. An astonishing commitment, when many star directors are happy to fire and forget, leaving opera companies to rely on revival directors who may mangle the original. 

McVicar nearly always returns to direct fresh performances of his work. None of his operatic children are allowed to stray far from home. And he has spawned many, most highly acclaimed.

Why is he successful? His self-assessment is blunt and self-deprecating. “Any director with pretensions to being a genius is a f…ing liar”. He goes on, “We’re only as good as the people we choose to work with”. And, at Glyndebourne, he was working with the best.

 A documentary (2008) on Medici TV hosted by Melvyn Bragg about a McVicar production of Richard Strauss’ Salome has been compulsory viewing for at least one American director friend. It amply illustrates his attention to detail, but also an openness to listening to artists. A less well-acknowledged trait.

What he has created for Glyndebourne is a Handel baroque opera that blends the seria with the comic, using dynamic choreography to keep the audience enthralled through every scene. Choreographer Andrew George’s dance sequences range from the perfectly timed percussive marching of Caesar’s red-coated pith-helmeted troopers to Cleopatra’s complex and hilarious take on Egyptian Saidi dancing. Think Walk Like an Egyptian, The Bangles.

But the choreography did more than tongue-in-cheek entertain. In the confrontation scene between Caesar and Tolomeo, the antsgonists dance away from each other to opposite sides of the stage, but as they pass in the middle, pivot around together in a repeated, clearly hostile cotillon, heads almost clashing. Like cosmic stars about to collide. A classic McVicar aggressive direction, probably learnt in Glasgow pubs. “See you, Tolomeo!”.

The action is loosely based on the Roman Civil War of 48-47BCE. Caesar has defeated Pompey and pursued him to Egypt where King Tolomeo is at odds with his sister, Cleopatra about who should rule. Tolomeo delivers Pompey’s head on a plate to Caesar. He, Cornelia, Pompey’s widow and Sesto, their son turn right radgy. 

Cleopatra, in the guise of Lydia seduces Caesar with a view to usurping Tolomeo’s throne. Cornelia is captured by Tolomeo. Sesto youthfully blusters he will seek revenge. Caesar is vanquished, then drowned, then, surprise, surprise, isn’t. He returns to the battle. His soldiers rise from the dead. Tolomeo is killed by Sesto. Cleopatra is crowned and swears fealty to Rome. Triumphant chorus. Pack up your picnic hampers. Goodnight. 

A complete synopsis of the version of the tale created by librettist Nicola Francesco Haym can be found here. At the long interval dinner I was conscious that more politics was happening onstage at Glyndebourne in three hours than has happened in six weeks of the UK general election. And no-one had placed a dodgy bet on the date of Caesar’s triumphant return to Alexandria.

The set is beautiful. The backdrop is the Mediterranean, represented by a series of pale grey, contrarotating sparkling tubes, in constant flux. Sail driven ships appear and disappear and when Caesar eventually conquers with Rome’s full pomp an ocean liner and a fleet of unlikely airships hove into view.

Unusually for McVicar the lighting is bright. Many of his productions are forbiddingly dark. Periods proliferate. Nineteenth century British expeditionary soldiers. Cabaret chic black sheer, then traditional Egyptian sequinned sparkly, topped by French 1st Empire impossible clobber and big hair for Cleo when she is eventually crowned in the final scene. Poor Louise Alder could only gaze longingly at her proffered gold crown on a velvet cushion and had difficulty sitting down. Caesar was by now a-dazzle white.

Attention to detail extended to the curtain that swooshes up and down in its own complex gavotte, every fold giving way in perfect time to the music. 

Conductor Laurence Cummings, currently music director of The Academy of Ancient Music, waved the stick at The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. There could be no better combination to deliver the constant stream of Handel’s beautiful score. 

A strength of the piece is that Handel has given all the characters wonderful arias. There are no orphans. Cornelia is Beth Taylor, a Scottish mezzo soprano with a powerful presence. 

Sesto, Svetlina Stoyanova, a Bulgarian mezzo, stunned the audience in her trouser role. She slowly morphed from ineffective child lashing out hopelessly at Tolomeo to his mature, cartridge-belted gun-toting killer. Beautifully done.

Tolomeo is a shifty cove. Cameron Shabazi, a Persian Canadian counter tenor oscillates perfectly across a range of characters. Vain idiot, cruel despot, infatuated lover and incestuous pervert rummaging his manacled sister to the ground in a smooch. He has a fluent, light tone which contrasted well with Nussbaum Cohen’s richer, more authoritative delivery.

In the final, celebratory scene a blood-stained Tolomeo, recently corpsed off unceremoniously stage right by a couple of reluctant minions, ironically reappears, to join in the celebrations. Nothing is taken too seriously. Except when dramatic confrontation really matters. 

American countertenor, Ray Chenez, Nireno, camps it up as Cleopatra’s major domo. He is never allowed by McVicar to stand still. While Caesar and Cleopatra sing of their undying love, there he is, incorrigible, eyeing up a butch redcoat. Hilarious. 

Achilla, Tolomeo’s general, who like his boss is besotted with Cornelia and comes to a redly-sticky end, is sung by Lucca Tittoto, an Italian bass baritone. Satisfyingly lustful and evil.

Back to those star turns, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and Louise Alder. I have followed Nussbaum Cohen’s career since I met him back in his days as an Adler scholar in San Francisco in 2019. He was already on the up at his New York Met debut as Rosencrantz in Brett Dean’s Hamlet, reviewed in Reaction.

Rosencrantz was a light, comic role and it is astonishing how Nussbaum Cohen has matured in those two short years. His stage presence is enhanced. His delivery more emphatic. On sustained, high notes there is never any sense of strain, only intensifying power. 

No mean feat for a counter tenor. I am sure his dramatic facility has improved significantly since he encountered McVicar. Maybe the schnauzers lent a hand. Nussbaum Cohen’s website claims “rising star”. Wrong. Risen. Now a fixture in opera’s firmament.

Louise Alder happens to be a friend of one of my daughter’s closest chums. I know her only through a couple of email exchanges but have kept an eye on her schedule and was thrilled to learn she was singing Cleopatra. 

How intimidating can it get? Taking on a role defined by Danielle di Niese, “Opera’s coolest soprano”, “The voice that launched a thousand ideas”. And on di Niese’ home turf. She is Glyndebourne’s chatelaine. 

Alder blazed from the start. Every comical gesture perfectly timed. An arched eyebrow, the umbrella and ciggy-holder unceremoniously deposited in Pompey’s urn. Then when it came to it, the burning, serious purpose of her arias. Especially Non disperar, Act I, Scene II; Piangerò la sorte mia, Act III, Scene I, and Da tempeste il legno infranto Act III, Scene III. 

Her coloratura soprano exudes warmth, the grace notes in aria reprises elegant and fluent. She is no stranger to the role of Cleopatra. Here she is in 2017 at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, “capturing the emotions of Handel’s Cleopatra about as perfectly as I’ve ever heard” as one listener put it. Take it from me, Alder is even better in full-on action mode. 

Giulio Cesare is scheduled to run for fifteen performances at Glyndebourne this season. Those not sold out have only limited availability. The word is out. An extra performance was slotted in to meet demand. I am back for another fix on 12 July. Glyndebourne’s recut gem will enrapture even those who think Baroque opera remote or dull and is as good as opera gets.

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