Despite the presence of an alligator on stage, this new ENO production of Handel’s 1724 opera gets off to a rather slow start, quite an achievement when it features Anna Christy’s Cleopatra singing her first aria while sitting astride the alligator’s back, pulling shiny wet eggs out of it and passing them around. In fact, giant alligator aside, it feels like we might be in for a long night.
This collaboration with Michael Keegan-Dolan of Ireland’s Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre is an odd union and one which doesn’t always work. In some of the early scenes, the performers, dressed as ravens and clad in spangly leotards with enormous black wings, most closely resemble Top of the Pops’ backing dancers, their sequins looking cheap compared with the theatre’s ornate interior. Then Caesar enters sans trousers, carrying a bunch of helium balloons. While Lawrence Zazzo is a renowned and skilful counter-tenor, he has a way of jerking and shivering as he sings which is jarring to watch; fortunately Keegan-Dolan’s production allows for and anticipates audience laughter.
The comedy of the piece feels deliberately awkward. It plays on the constant threat, inherent in all opera, of becoming a parody of itself; if anything the production seems to relish this potential. Tim Mead, as Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and Caesar’s sworn enemy is magnificent; a deranged dandy, he drags a dead giraffe’s severed head across the stage and removes its tongue, forcing Cornelia, his prisoner, to eat it. The alligator eggs reappear as croquet balls, to be placed in his victims’ mouths as he prances about, decadent and evil, singing about hatred with a delighted smile.
Keegan-Dolan’s visual confidence is invigorating. Act Three opens with every prop seen so far scattered across the stage to create a menacing looking nursery. The tableaux is rich and impressive, with Cleopatra’s floor-length tutu making her appear doll-like, as she sits tied to a chair in the centre of the stage. The dancing ravens even make a return, but this time the offending leotards are gone, and they are slumped around the stage, their make up smudged, suffering in the aftermath of a tragic fancy dress party. In contrast with their awkward earlier appearance, they flock towards their despairing Queen with perfect choreography as she sings, covering her with their wings. These dancers also steal the final scene, performing a nuanced enactment of falling in love as Cleopatra and Caesar sing.
Yet despite its energy and visual invention, the production is not without problems. The numerous power struggles and erotic maneuvering which this opera is famous for are almost entirely absent and the use of guns and cowboy outfits – perhaps intended to draw a parallel between this Roman superpower and the US – all feels a little like knock-off Baz Luhrmann.
That said the production contains moments of delicious battiness. As Sesto, here played by Daniela Mack rather than a male performer, swears to avenge her father, the dancers pull stockings over their faces and perform a kind of surreal gimp dance. It’s the contrast of this lunatic imagery with the earnestness of the music that really sticks in the memory.