Giulio Cesare, Grand Theatre, Leeds
Prokofiev: Man of the People? Royal Festival Hall, London

This serious, simple production of Handel's opera is strong on storytelling and character, but suffers from musical hiccups

After the Carry On Bollywood razzmatazz of David McVicar's production at Glyndebourne, Tim Albery's Opera North staging of Giulio Cesare is startling in its seriousness and simplicity. A single structure dominates Leslie Travers's high-walled set, like an amphibious landing craft in its rough, grey exterior, a tomb of gold and a labyrinth of connecting passages concealed within. Egypt is under military occupation.

Gilded with horns, perfumed with harp, viola da gamba and muted violins, Handel's 1724 opera has more to offer than an erotic dance between two superstars of ancient history. Here is war, the madness of bereavement, the mutual ignorance of two cultures, and the swoon and buckle of love at first sight. As the heavy swirl of the overture erupts into a biting fugue, we see Pompey's murder at the hands of Tolomeo (James Laing). A giggling sociopath in an electric blue silk suit, he is the polar opposite of Pamela Helen Stephen's austere, weary Cesare.

Albery's Romans are conservative, formal, stiff. Cornelia (Ann Taylor) wears the skirt suit of a presidential candidate's wife, Sesto (Kathryn Rudge) the pristine uniform of a West Point cadet. There's a cheeky nod to contemporary orientalism when Cleopatra (Sarah Tynan) exchanges her electric blue hot pants for a cheongsam, posing as the maidservant, Lydia. Sexual manipulator par excellence, her poise dissolves when she meets the invading hero. That moment is beautifully drawn, both singers reeling. Indeed, character development and storytelling are of a high quality. Musically, it is less secure.

Opera North's orchestra has adapted well to baroque style, with particularly handsome playing from the bassoons and oboes, but conductor Robert Howarth's tempi are cautious and there's a hiccupy feel to what should be a dangerous curve of beauty. Though Tynan's voice is light, her singing is agile, stylish and radiant in the long lines of "Per pietà" and "Piangero". Stephen sings with gravity and grace but is underpowered in "Va tacito". Taylor suffers most from the dragging tempi, her composure undone, like her blouse, by Laing's venal Tolomeo. He has a happier fit of voice to role, as does Rudge, who excels as his agonised, fearful assassin.

Lolling against the final "e" like a teenager at a bus stop, the question mark in the title of the LPO's series Prokofiev: Man of the People? is an interesting touch. Think of Prokofiev's most famous music and it's all exclamation marks, brittle and dazzling. Born nine years later than Stravinsky and 15 years earlier than Shostakovich, Prokofiev seemed to suffer from middle-child syndrome, fleeing Mother Russia for Uncle Sam, and Uncle Sam for Uncle Joe, for ever competing with his siblings. This is one view that conductor Vladimir Jurowski seeks to challenge, focusing on works that reveal "a vulnerable soul" behind the state-approved sentimentality and bombast. So why open with Lieutenant Kijé?

Conducted by Alexander Vedernikov, this wide-screen pageant of sleigh bells, balalaikas, tipsy waltzes and fat-bottomed doynas did little to advance Jurowski's argument. The back-desk violinists looked bored and so, I imagine, did I. No room for boredom in the Cello Concerto, the demands of which warped Danjulo Ishizaka's normally impeccable intonation. Only in the stertorous Seventh Symphony was any vulnerability in evidence beneath the gleaming washes of colour.

In the second concert, broadcast live on Radio 3 with Jurowski at the helm and Steven Osborne at the piano, there was more engagement in the playing: a twinge of unease behind the glassy glamour of the Symphonic Song, a spark of candour in the Fifth Piano Concerto, and a sour seam of regret in the anthemic ambitions of the Sixth Symphony. Was it enough to merit that question mark? Not quite.

'Giulio Cesare' (0844 848 2720) to 16 Feb, then touring. 'Prokofiev: Man of the People?': (0844 847 9920) to 1 Feb

Next Week

Anna Picard is all ears as the Kronos Quartet's London residency opens with George Crumb's Black Angels at the Hackney Empire

Classical Choice

Kirill Karabits conducts Gautier Capuçon and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Dvorák's Cello Concerto, the overture to Weber's Oberon and Sibelius's Fifth Symphony at the Lighthouse, Poole (Wed). The Kronos Quartet's Awakenings continues with a Barbican performance of Michael Gordon's A Sad Park (Thu), and an evening of Glass, Ives, Webern, Lutoslawski and Bob Dylan at Wilton's Music Hall (Fri).

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003