Washington Opera:  Giulio Cesare

Music (1724) by George Frideric Handel
Libretto by Nicole Francesco Haym

Performance of Saturday, February 12, 2000

Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar)
Curius, a Roman Tribune
Cornelia, widow of Pompey
Sextus, son of Pompey
Achillas, Ptolemy's general
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt
Nirenus, Cleopatra's confidant
Ptolemy, King of Egypt

Vivica Geneaux, mezzo
Vladimir Shvets, baritone
Catherine Keen, mezzo
Marguerite Krull, soprano
Jonathan Hays, baritone
Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano
Julia Fischer, mezzo
Flavio Oliver, sopranist

Will Crutchfield
John Pascoe

Most of us are familiar with and have grown up with George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" and "Water Music". His oratorios are famous and have become part of the standard performance repertoire of Baroque vocal music. They (and Bach's) are among my favorites for choral music of the Baroque period, with full-bodied melodies full of coloratura and counterpoint.

Handel also composed the music for 37 operas, very few of which are performed today because of their length and obscurity of subject matter. Handel assumed correctly that his audience knew the historical background behind his operas, so he could go ahead and relate his tale without too much explaining. Handel based his 1724 opera on a story that was already quite familiar to his audience, but less familiar to today's audience. I can't speak for everyone, but my first experience with any theatrical prodction based on some aspect of Julius Caesar's life, was that of Shakespeare's play,"Julius Caesar". Shakespeare's play is not the libretto for Handel's opera! (However, Handel would most likely have created some wonderful music for it.)

Handel's subject matter touches on an earlier part of Julius Caesar's life than Shakespeare's does. When the opera opens, Caesar has been battling with Pompey for control of the Roman Empire. Pompey's forces have just been defeated in Greece, and Pompey with his troops flee to Egypt for asylum. Caesar and his army follow him to Egypt, but when Caesar arrives, he is greeted by a present of the severed head of Pompey. Ptolemy, King of Egypt, and brother/husband of Queen Cleopatra has murdered Pompey thinking that by doing so, he can win Caesar's friendship. The plan backfires and Caesar vows revenge on Ptolemy. Ptolemy in return vows to have Caesar murdered. To assist Ptolemy in trapping Caesar, Cleopatra disguises herself as Lydia, one of her maidens, and goes to Caesar's camp. Plans do not ensue as expected for on the night of Cleopatra's arrival in Caesar's camp, Caesar and Cleopatra fall in love, and thus begins one of the most famous love stories in history. Caesar eventually learns that Ptolemy has been plotting to have him murdered. Several battles ensue between the supporters of Caesar and the supporters of Ptolemy. Ptolemy is slain on the battlefield by Pompey's son, Sextus, in vengence for his father's murder. After Ptolemy is slain, the people of Egypt celebrate the political union of Caesar and Cleopatra and the return of peace to the region.

My favorite singer was soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, who sang the role of Cleopatra. Handel's Cleopatra is not the sexy vamp of Hollywood movies. For some strange reason, Washington Opera had her dressed in 18th Century costume for this production. She looked like she had just stepped off of the set of Mozart's Così Fan Tutte. Anyway, upon hearing her voice, I could let myself believe she really was dressed as an Egyptian monarch of the 1st Century BC. She really moved and held herself like a queen. Her voice was just perfect, gliding over the coloratura without faltering, putting enough drama into her voice to make her character convincing. In Act II, scene vii, there is a famous love scene between Cleopatra and Caesar, where she reveals her true name to Caesar, and sings a beautiful showpiece aria.

Mezzo Vivica Geneaux was disappointing as Julius Caesar. I had heard her two months earlier sing the role of Cinderella in Baltimore Opera's production of La Cenerentola. She was far more convincing as Cinderella. As Caesar, a male war hero full of bravado and self-importance, I had expected a voice that was lower in range than a female voice. It was hard to believe she was singing/acting the role of a man. Her attempt at lower range mezzo did not carry well and she seemed to mumble the words. Handel had assigned the role of Caesar to a countertenor, which can easily reach the mezzo range. It left me wondering what it is about Julius Caesar the man that requires such a high voice. He is 52 years old at the time the opera takes place. Two other male roles - Curius and Achillas - are sung by baritones. Ptolemy is sung by a sopranist, but Ptolemy is a young man at the time of the story, much younger than Caesar. Countertenor David Daniels would have been my choice for the role of Caesar, as his voice is more suitable to the required vocal range. He had wanted to sing in the Washington Opera production, but was already booked with other engagements (one of them being the Miami Opera's Giulio Cesare also being performed that weekend). In spite of the weaknesses of her singing, Geneaux is a good actress and there are a few well-done moments. Her best is the reflective aria at the beginning of Act I, scene vii, during which Caesar kneels at the urn containing Pompey's ashes and sings of the temporality of life. The reflective mood is touching and poetic and reveals a soft side to the mighty warrior who is to be captivated more by the heart than by armaments of war.

Overall the production was beautiful. The music, of course, was excellent, and Handel scholar Will Crutchfield as conductor did a masterful job of shaping the music and creating the brilliant contrasts between the Largo and Andante arias of Cornelia, the tragic mother-figure, and her son's Allegro arias. When both mother and son rejoice in victory at the end of the opera, they share a single Largo, slow and grand, almost prayerful. In contrast, the music for Ptolemy and Achillas, both lecherous and powerful, are to be performed energetically, full of fire and fury. Largo, Andante, and Allegro are the markings Handel gave to the individual arias to emphasize how quickly or slowly they should be sung, and help reflect the mood surrounding the characters and related dramatic elements.

A final comment needs to be said concerning the costumes and set design. They were GORGEOUS! Aside from Cleopatra's costume, an anachronism and clearly out of place in this production, the other costumes were appropriately suited to fit each character. Caesar wore a maroon jacket, pants, cape, and gold breastplate. Sextus wore a similar costume which was all black as he was supposed to be in mourning. His mother, Cornelia, wore a black robe. Ptolemy wore a puffy brown and chartreuse Arabian pantsuit with puffy sleeves that looked like they were from a Michelin tire advertisement, and large stiff collars surrounded his head and neck. He looked like he was playing a role in a science fiction movie! This was done, I believe, to make him more visible on the set and to reinforce the aura of sinister sensuality surrounding his character. The set was full of lights and colorful shapes, contrasts of gold and black, light and dark shadows, providing plenty of visual delights to accompany the auditory delights of Handel's music. A real pleasure to be sure!

by Jan Rosen

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