Composer: George Frideric Handel
Libretto: Nicola Francesco Haym
Fort Worth Opera
Julius Caesar ? Randall Scotting
Cornelia ? Meredith Arwady
Sextus ? Michael Maniaci
Curio ? Lane Johnson
Cleopatra ? Ava Pine
Ptolemy ? Jos? ?lvarez
Achillas ? Donovan Singletary
Nirenus ? Meaghan Deiter
Conductor ? Daniel Beckwith
Director ? David Gately
Set Designer ? Ming Cho Lee
Costume Designer ? Robert Perdziola
Lighting Designer ? Chad R. Jung
Reviewed Performance 5/28/2011
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The Ft. Worth Opera Festival presented George Frideric Handel?s ?Julius Caesar? last Saturday evening at the Bass Performance Hall. The structure?s Great Dome and giant trumpeting angels set the perfect ambiance for this historic drama of Cleopatra and Caesar. Sung in the usual Italian with English supertitles, the company brought to us Handel?s Baroque opera which was composed in the aristocratic ?opera seria.? This format is usually akin to a recital with elaborate scenery, but was not ?so? serious in the hands of the Ft. Worth Opera?s creative team.
In 1724, the court pet, Handel, delighted nobility at Queen?s Theatre with his opera set in Egypt. He himself directed thirty-eight performances in London. However, Texans have a chance on the afternoon of June 5th to become nobility and enjoy this tale of treachery and romance that was composed three hundred years ago.
For the past quarter of a century ?opera seria? had grown in popularity with American audiences. In the opening scene Caesar [Randall Scotting] sauntered onto the center stage platform in his brocaded cream-colored attire trimmed in gold, took his stance, and opened his mouth?a pure soprano voice poured out. A jolt could almost be felt in the room. Yes, the Ft. Worth audience was taken aback by his treble tones. Eventually they settled in and somewhat accepted the premise of a viral Roman leader matching pitches with his soprano lead, Cleopatra [Ava Pine]. Mr. Scotting?s countertenor voice manipulated through the arias well but his head shaking in the melismatic passages was a bit distracting. Nonetheless, his soprano abilities were exceptional although still not as full and rounded as my recordings of women singing these same roles. Women singing pant?s roles in the popular Romantic operas is widely accepted however contemporary audiences still take their time adjusting to a man singing in the female range in Baroque opera.
Ava Pine played a regal but seductive Cleopatra as she enraptured Caesar with ?V?adoro, pupille,? one of the opera?s most celebrated arias. In the Da Capo [ABA] form the first section of an aria is repeated. In the second go around, ornamentations are inserted to display the singer?s creativity and technical prowess. The beautiful Ms. Pine did not disappoint in both areas. I especially enjoyed her flowing arm gestures. Audiences always respond well when a soprano lies flat on her stomach while simultaneously singing ringing top E?s. Director, David Gately, gave us such a scene with Cleopatra sorrowfully singing ?Se piet? as she lay upon her bed after Caesar left to face his enemies. Ms. Pine?s ?Pianger? la sorte mia? aria haunted us as Cleopatra bemoaned her cruel fate while imprisoned by her brother.
Mr. Scotting also performed the lying-on-the-floor singing feat singing ?Dall?ondoso peroglio?Aure, deh, per piet? as he dragged himself in from the perils of the sea. Such improbable convolutions in opera are what audiences thrill to see.
The villain Ptolemy [Jos? ?lvarez] opened one scene with another unlikely event as he took a Baroque bubble bath and beckoned his handsome servant to scrub his back. By this point in the story we were completely enveloped in the premise that nothing was realistic and just went with the flow. Although the spirited Cleopatra taunted Ptolemy with a statement about his effeminate traits early on in the action, I found the lengths to which Mr. ?lvarez took this characterization rerouted the original scoring too far. He was a villain who had Pompey beheaded and presented the bloody severed head to Caesar, yet I never found him to be the least bit intimidating. He came off as a spoiled brat?a brat that sang striking high notes.
The tale was of Romans and Egyptians vying for power and featured the love story between Cleopatra and Caesar. The playbill detailed the elaborate plot. The orchestra, conducted by Daniel Beckwith, who also played the harpsichord, adeptly recreated the picturesque sounds of Handel?s orchestral writing. Traditionally a conductor plays the harpsichord with his left hand, directs with his right hand, and holds the baton in his teeth. He then conducts the orchestra amazingly enough with his left elbow. Sadly this feat being accomplished in the pit was not visible from my vantage point.
However, I could clearly see the lovely golden beams of the refurbished set which came from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, designed by Ming Cho Lee. This set was originally used when Beverly Sills performed Cleopatra at the New York City Opera in 1966. Robert Perdziola?s new costume designs reflected the Handel era. However, in the end Caesar and Cleopatra donned golden leaf head wreaths hinting at the Egyptian style. The beams of the set and Cleopatra?s glowing white gown lent themselves well to dramatic shadowing and lighting effects created by light designer, Chad Jung.
The libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym took expected liberties with the historical story to add drama. In general, I believe the audience seemed intoxicated by the cast?s three countertenors; I don?t think it was the wine at intermission. However, in a gathering across the street after the production, I overheard the comment, ?Give me a real baritone or a tenor, not men singing in falsetto.?
Texans might not all be quite as accepting as the public in Handel?s day of this voice type. We know the sound was achieved in that era by the now outlawed practice of castrating young male singers before puberty. Handel wrote to those roles, and the public adored the castrati heroes who performed them. The modern solution of countertenors and male soprani training to sing these characters might have given the audience a bit of shiver, but nonetheless fascinated.
We may have to vary our vision of virility. When I first heard the delicate speaking voice of Mike Tyson years ago, I had the same reaction. Are you serious?he?s a heavyweight boxing champion! Obviously boxers may be soft spoken just as Egyptian and Roman warriors may hold pure high C?s. All three countertenors in this performance displayed shocking ability in the traditionally female range and kept our attention riveted.
Ft. Worth Opera Festival
Ball Performance Hall
525 Commerce Street
Ft. Worth, TX 76102
Second performance: June 5th at 2:00 p.m.
Purchase tickets online at www.fwopera.org or call 817.731.0726 or 1.877.396.7372.