Houston — Before attending the Houston Grand Opera’s production of George Frederic Handel’s opera seria, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (here called Julius Caesar with the “in Egypt” dropped)—and you definitely should—there are a few things to know that will increase your enjoyment of this delightful production. Other than boning up on the rather complex plot, that is.
First, the three main male roles are sung by countertenors. These are male singers who can sing in the range of a female mezzo-soprano. It is something more than a falsetto and the effect must be close to the original portrayers of these roles, the castrati. In 1724, all the rage on the operatic stage were the fabulous castrati, men who had been castrated in childhood for preventing the unchanged voice to stay that way. Such a voice welded by a mature man, these singers created a sensation.
Modern day countertenors, unaltered Gott sei Dank, first came to worldwide attention in sacred music, with singers such as Alfred Deller, who sang early on in the 20th century. David Daniels is credited with the resurgence of the countertenor in the 21st century and remains the most well known countertenor of our time. He sang the role of Caesar when this production first graced the stage at the Wortham Center Theater in 2003. This time, he is singing the role of Ptolemy. Caesar is sung by the current top of the countertenor list who has won many prizes and accolades, Anthony Roth Costanzo. The young and upcoming countertenor, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, promises a bright future for the voice type in the role of Nirenus.
Secondly, you need to know that Baroque opera is a string of arias, designed to show off the abilities of the leading singers of the day. And these arias all fit a pattern. A first section is sung and then a contrasting section is performed. After that, the first section is repeated thanks to the written designation of da capo, meaning “from the head,” which is the already heard first section. Singers take this opportunity to add ornamentations, sometimes even improvised, to show off their unique abilities. For this reason, Baroque is humorously refered to as da capopera. Modern audiences are not prepared for the constant repetitions of long already heard passages, since this practice is long gone from the operatic stage. You need to just relax and welcome the chance to hear an unrequested encore.
The next thing you need to know is that this production is updated and takes place in a Hollywood movie studio in the 1920’s or thereabouts. It is only odd in that they retain the names of the original characters, so seeing Cleopatra as a Marilyn Monroe platinum blond in a slinky black negligee is a bit of a time warp mind eruct. Once you realize that are making a movie, you relax because Hollywood glamorizes and changes everything in telling a story.
In addition to the stellar countertenors, you could hardly ask for better casting in the women’s roles. One of the greatest singers on the stage today is Stephanie Blyth and she breaks hearts here, a number of times, as the recently widowed Cornelia. As Cleopatra, Heidi Stober smolders with sexuality and when she sets her sights on Caesar, he falls to her wiles almost instantly.
One twist is the casting of a female, Megan Mikailova Schneider, in the male role of Sextus. This honors Handel’s original casting that used a female in a “pants role.” This is a role that is portraying a young boy, usually a tween, and is another tradition in opera. The most famous example of such a role is Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
The role of the male character Achillas is sung by a male, Frederico De Michelis, singing in the male range, and is the only exception to the gender bewilderment you may experience in the opening scenes of the opera.
This is a marvelous production that is cleverly staged and adapted to the drastic change of venue by James Robinson and masterfully conducted by HGO’s Artistic and Music Director, Patrick Summers. He has a bit of an advantage over the fate of the conductor of La Traviata, Eun Sun Kim, in that his smaller orchestra is a little more down stage than hers was, banished in the back as it was. This gives him some limited contact with the singers. However, Summers has always amazed with his second sight with singers. It is like he does a Vulcan Mind Meld with all of them, which goes both ways—conductor to singer and back again.
Julius Caesar is a champagne cork-pop of a production. You can even forget that you are in an improvised theater. By the way, the Wortham features an excellent place to have dine with a row of chefs offering everything from a full dinner and a pasta bar to a salad. You will be pleased to know that this tradition is continued in the convention center. The familiar row of chefs, serving as fine a meal as we are accustomed to in the Wortham, is a comforting sight.