Teatro dell’Opera Di Roma opens its new season with the world’s premier of Julius Caesar, a fitting subject to this location. It is a brave gamble. This unfamiliar opera is bound to have its critics, particularly, but not exclusively, from amongst loyal conservative operagoers as the music is devoid of melodious or familiar arias. The gamble was calculated as the composer is Giorgio Battistelli, Italy’s most prolific living opera composer. Further, the librettist is Ian Burton and the director Robert Carsen. This trio have an excellent track record as a team and each in his own right. The first opera, based on Shakespeare’s play, that the three worked on in their respective capacities, was Richard III. It was performed in English, as this opera, in 2005 at the De Vlaamse Opera, Belgium. That opera has since been successfully performed in a few European Opera Houses. Whether the opera Julius Caesar will be a repertory piece, time will tell.
Battistelli’s score draws on a wide variety of styles and instruments eschewing traditional set forms, offering astringent atonality of a post modernist genre. The score’s superb opening generates a sense of a forbidding turbulence that is dramatic and promising. However, like silence after a storm, the music that follows had a numbing effect. The score is repetitive and monotonous, flat in texture and soulless in content. Shakespeare’s poetry sounded castrated and partly muffled. Although the opera is sung in English, the words are not enunciated clearly. It seems that this effect is not due to the singers but to Battistelli’s angular vocal writing, which hinders clear projection of the libretto’s lines. Yet a dramatic change takes place in Caesar’s bedroom. where there is more interaction between the performers and less contemplative introspection. At this point, Batistelli’s music integrate into the fabric of the narrative, focusing on the unfolding drama. A new energy fills the auditorium. Music and narrative intertwine and remain so to the end of the opera. The conspiracy works magic.
Burton’s two-act libretto truncated Shakespeare’s play, adjusting it to Batistelli’s score. Occasionally modernising the language and excluding some of the original characters, including Portia, Brutus’s wife. The only female role in this opera is Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, exquisitely performed by Ruxandra Donose.
Donose’s Calpurnia is seductive and formidable. She momentarily succeeds in dissuading Caesar, superbly performed by a truly versatile and utterly imposing Clive Bayley, from going to the Senate. The scene is believable. This is a moment when drama and music joint forces offering more than a glimpse into the couple’s relationship. Caesar, the man, the loving husband, is one we see before the assassination. From this point on the score carries the narrative and vice versa.
The rest of the vocal cast, including Dominic Sedgwick (Antony), and Elliot Madore (Brutus), is very good, making the best of the vocal score. Daniele Gatti, the theatre music director since 2018, conducts this opera with aplomb despite the need to keep an eye and ear simultaneously on the orchestra in the pit, and on a diverse range of percussion set inside the Box on left of the stage. mirrored by a varied string instruments on the right.
Robert Carsen’s staging is impressive, in as much as it creates an image of the current Italian Senate; red seats dominate it. In the battle scene, the stage rotates and the black metallic scaffolds, the back of the Senate seating, become the battlefield. A clever touch as the force driving the civil war began in the Senate – the centre of the struggle for power and control.
There were a number of exquisite touches to the staging. As an example, when Anthony (Dominic Sedgwick) delivers his soliloquy, the lights in the auditorium gradually come on and he is in fact addressing us, the audience. Nothing dramatic, but it is a nice touch.
This was an amazing experience where, in the first 60 minutes, monotony prevailed, while the next 70 minutes the opera was electrifying dramatically and musically. My four stars go to the second part.
- Music : Giorgio Battistelli
- Libretto by Ian Burton (after William Shakespeare)
- Conductor: Daniele Gatti
- Director: Robert Carsen
- Photographer: Fabrizio Sansoni
- Cast includes: Clive Bayley, Elliot Madore, Julian Hubbard, Dominic Sedgwick, Michael J. Scott, Hugo Hymas, Ruxandra Donose, Alexander Sprague
- Teatro dell’Opera di Roma
- Until: 28th November 2021
- 130 minutes, plus one intermission