At first sight, Julius Caesar is the perfect ideal of masculinity. He is a leader of armies and ruler of the Roman Empire. He woos any woman with impunity; he takes what he wants. Then he opens his mouth and begins to sing with a striking alto voice. You haven’t gone crazy─you’ve merely stumbled into a Baroque opera.
Baroque opera is unique within the genre as a whole; one of the most notable characteristics is the prolific use (at least in the 17 th and 18 th centuries) of castrati in so-called “hero roles.” When the practice of castration was outlawed in Italy in 1760, the form fell out of favor. It didn’t return until the 20 th century, and even then the castrati roles were usually modified to allow a male to sing the role in a “normal” voice. In the past few decades, there has been a drive in the music world to return to the original sound of the work; this has led to increased use of countertenors in the castrati roles. While not replicating the tone exactly, it does allow modern audiences to get a taste of the original intent of the composition.
Georg Friederich Handel’s opera Julius Caesar has long been considered the pinnacle of the Baroque opera form. The story revolves around Caesar coming to Egypt following a vanquished foe and instead meeting Cleopatra, falling in love with her, and installing her on the throne. The final show to open in the Fort Worth Opera Festival, Caesar, directed by David Gately, takes up the challenge of the work and delivers a strong product with some breathtaking moments.
The set is designed by Ming Cho Lee for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City (fun fact: the same set was used by the New York City opera for a 1966 production that launched the career of Beverly Sills, one of the greatest sopranos of the latter half of the 20 th century). The costumes, designed new for this production by Robert Perdziola, range from the simple to the extravagant and provide a great deal of the color seen on stage. Both the costumes and set are done in full baroque style, which does take a moment to reconcile; a hallmark of Baroque performance practice was that foreign cultures were Europeanized. Thus, Egypt looks more like an Italian palace, and the characters dress in the style of Italian nobility. The lighting design by Chad R. Jung is simple, yet works effectively, especially when shot through the set to create some marvelous shadow effects.
While many of the visual elements stand out, the real gem of this production is found in the vocal performances. Curio, played by bass Lane Johnson and Achillas, played by bass Donovan Singletary, both stand out as the lieutenants of Caesar and Ptolemy, respectively. Contralto Meredith Arwady is solid in her portrayal of the widow Cornelia; the only regret in this production is that there is not more material for her to sing─perhaps she will be brought back in future seasons with the Fort Worth Opera and given a more prominent role. Her son Sextus is sung by countertenor Michael Maniaci, who adroitly handles the highest of the three countertenor roles with ease. Rounding out the supporting cast is Meghan Deiter as Nirenus, the confidant of Cleopatra. When she is onstage her acting ability alone steals the scene, always sympathetic and sincere in her interactions.
Ptolemy (the villain of the plot, potential usurper to the throne of Egypt) is sung by countertenor Jose Alvarez. His voice is very clear and concise, and he expertly navigates the complicated runs and ornamentation commonly found in baroque music. Physically, the performance is a bit unclear. In this style of Baroque opera (often referred to as opera seria) the villain is evil, the hero pure, and the maiden angelic. In this production, Ptolemy is portrayed as a bit of a buffoon. It results in some quick laughs from the audience but at times feels forced. This is most notable in the opening of the third act, when the curtain rises on Ptolemy bathing and flirting with his guards. While comic (and generating some of the biggest laughs of the evening), it feels like a cheap gag that doesn’t fit the rest of the production.
The final castrati role, Julius Caesar, is sung by countertenor Randal Scotting, who is the strongest of these countertenors, vocally, which is helpful because he shoulders the largest load of singing. Much like Alvarez, he handles the complex technical demands of the music well, but his greatest strength lies in his intensely lyrical musical ability. He has a very clear, sweet tone that captivates the audience in many of his arias. As mentioned, he exudes the idea of a man’s man─a masculine hero who makes women swoon.
Finally, there is the role of Cleopatra, sung by Ava Pine. Everything about her performance is stunning. Her voice has a very light, airy quality that allows every note she sings to resonate with a clear vibrancy; many of the vocal runs that lesser performers would muddle through are note-perfect in this production. Pine also shines as an actor, always carrying herself with a regal and sincere grace.
The orchestra is led by conductor Daniel Beckwith, who also doubles as one of the harpsichordists. The ensemble also features guest artist Daniel Swenberg on the theorbo (a lute-like instrument with a long neck and extended range) and lute. The orchestra as a whole is quite adept and exceptionally musical in the recitative sections between each aria. On Saturday night, there were a few instances where the orchestra was a little too loud, but on the whole the ensemble functioned as an able accompanist.
This production of Julius Caesar is one that should not be missed for a whole bevy of reasons. It is Baroque opera─a style that is not normally seen around North Texas─and the performances are world class. If nothing else, go to experience the rare phenomenon of three countertenors singing in the same location; it’s something you won’t often find.
The Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011 continues with the following performances (and to read Mark Lowry's feature on the Festival, go here):
- Philip Glass' Hydrogen Jukebox, in the Sanders Theatre at Fort Worth Community Arts Center: 7:30pm June 1, 2 & 5; 2pm June 4 OUR REVIEW
- Verdi's Il Trovatore: 7:30pm June 3 (Bass Hall) OUR REVIEW
- Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado: 7:30pm June 4 (Bass Hall) OUR REVIEW
- Handel's Julius Caesar: 2pm June 5 (Bass Hall)