Blackwater Valley Opera Festival and Irish Baroque Orchestra at Lismore Castle, on 1 June 2024

The end of May heralds the first of the summer music festivals, Blackwater Valley Opera Festival. Built on ambition and optimism, it has outdone itself this year with not just its first baroque opera—always a risk—but one of the biggest: ‘Giulio Cesare’ (or ‘Julius Caesar’) by George Frideric Handel. Most operas of Handel’s time need just five or maybe six singers, but this one calls for eight, plus a four-voice chorus, and takes over three-and-a-half hours. While cutting about an hour out of the music does mean that we’re out before midnight, other aspects are not so short-changed, with the production boasting an international creative team headed by director Tom Creed and expert Handel conductor Nicholas McGegan.

As usual, the opera is staged in a courtyard in Lismore Castle, a space that a few decades ago was apparently used by local foresters for saw-milling. No such industry now: instead, temporary seating fills the space, covered over by an impressive awning, leaving the stage open to the elements, with the orchestra in an odd space—acoustically and visually—to the left of the stage. Getting the audience in and out through the cramped access is slow (not ideal for health and safety), but it does force us to pass through the idyllic pastoral haven of the castle gardens, an appropriate mirror for an early drama like this. The old-style garden design, with its contrasting colours and visual effects, perhaps anticipates the self-aware theatricality of Tom Creed’s design within. It also means the music is occasionally supplemented by real birdsong, providing an authentic distraction.

Anna Devin (Cleopatra)

The drama takes place in a broken world, as the civil war of Caesar and Pompey arrives on the shores of Egypt, itself gripped by the bitter conflict of siblings Cleopatra and Ptolemy. With every side battling for control, betrayal and bloodshed keep the stakes high. Navigating this political minefield, soprano Anna Devin is brilliantly playful as Cleopatra, vocally on top form and clearly enjoying the theatrical possibilities of the role, varying from a spiky, even reckless, sense of humour to sumptuous play-acting when required. Her range extends further as the evening darkens, especially in her aria of fear and grief, Piangerò la sorte mia (‘I lament my fate’), creating a moment of exquisite stillness. As her rival Tolomeo (Ptolemy), countertenor Nils Wanderer presents a complex figure, and the childish sadism usually associated with this role is deepened here with a hint of twisted nobility, aided by Wanderer’s imposing physical presence and excellent singing.

Nils Wanderer (Tolomeo)

They are well-balanced by the other family pairing of the story, Pompey’s grieving widow Cornelia (Carolyn Holt) and son Sesto (Sharon Carty). Bereft of their husband/father in the opening scene of the drama, their grief and insecurity make them powerful symbols of the play of power that this story invokes. Carolyn Holt movingly projects this with her first aria, Priva son d’ogni conforto (‘Bereft of all comfort’) an affecting expression of loss, her voice matching the rich sound of the Irish Baroque Orchestra (and flute soloist Miriam Kaczor). In contrast, Sesto’s role is to resist and fight back. Sharon Carty sings his music with keen expression and vivid fluency, and physically commits to the role with real strength and agility, a side to her work not always seen. The two combine beautifully in their duet Son nata a lagrimar (‘I was born to weep’).

Sharon Carty (Sesto)

The title role, Giulio Cesare himself, is sung by contralto Ingeborg Bröcheler in cross-dress (it was originally a castrato role). She makes less of an impact than her colleagues, somehow falling short of this complex role. Her key first-act aria, Va tacito e nascosto (‘Silently and stealthily moves the cunning hunter’), for example, is strangely constrained, with the musical honours falling squarely with the bravura horn solo of the IBO’s Anna Drysdale.

Ingeborg Bröcheler (Giulio Cesare) and Fionn Ó hAlmhain (Curio)

Nevertheless, there are some fine moments in this production. Creed and the company show themselves very much alive to the ironies that sit alongside the darker strands of this work, and there is plenty of smart theatricality to enjoy, with the chorus put to good use as ‘rent-a-crowd’ extras for both sides of the story. It is a luxury to have a fuller-sized ensemble than is usually heard for productions of early opera here, directed superbly from the harpsichord by Nicholas McGegan. Hopefully it will not take long for Handel’s operas to be performed and appreciated once again on the main stages of this country, so that audiences can see and hear what is possible in these mercurial and deeply (even dangerously) witty works.

George Frideric Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto
Sung in Italian (libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym), with English surtitles
Director: Tom Creed; Set & Lighting Designer: Aedín Cosgrove; Costume Designer: Catherine Fay; Conductor: Nicholas McGegan
Cast: Ingeborg Bröcheler (Giulio Cesare); Anna Devin (Cleopatra); Nils Wanderer (Tolomeo); Carolyn Holt (Cornelia); Sharon Carty (Sesto); Dean Murphy (Achilla); Iestyn Morris (Nireno); Fionn Ó hAlmhain (Curio)
Irish Baroque Orchestra

Photography by Matt Brooker