George Frideric Handel’s “Julius Caesar in Egypt”

Aided and abetted by the New York City Opera, custodian of big-scale operatic culture in Los Angeles from 1966 until 1982, Handel’s Julius Caesar (Giulio Cesare in Egitto), first conquered California during those early days of New York’s “occupation” of the then brand-new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The Caesar was basso Norman Treigle, one of San Diego Opera’s most beloved stars (who appeared here virtually annually from 1966 until shortly before his death in 1975). The Cleopatra was the “overnight sensation,” soprano Beverly Sills, who had, in fact, been laboring away at the NYCO without much acclaim for 10 years. It was Handel’s Cleopatra that made her famous. However, Sills – another much beloved San Diego Opera star for many years – never sang Cleopatra here, nor did Treigle sing so much as one note of Caesar.

Handel’s opera had to wait almost 40 more years for a San Diego Opera staging and there is certainly no shame in that. The NYCO production is often cited as one of the most important catalysts in the current revival of interest in Handel’s operas. Without that revival we would not have had Handel’s Ariodante at the SDO in February of 2002. Since the NYCO’s Caesar, there have been productions of Xerxes and Alcina in Los Angeles, and of Rodelinda, Alcina, Semele (a staged oratorio) and Orlando in San Francisco. And by now, most opera-lovers realize that the part of Caesar was originally penned for an alto-castrato, something Treigle most certainly was not!

Of course, castrati, or males castrated in their youth so as to preserve their glorious boyish voices into manhood, are thankfully rather scarce today – even though that fact makes it totally impossible to have an “authentic performance practice” performance of the title role in Julius Caesar. Luckily, today we have a plethora of countertenors around (scarce commodities before the Handel revival) and any number of female mezzo-sopranos who are willing to take on the part. English mezzo-soprano Janet Baker was smashing as the Roman emperor (English National Opera, 1979). And so was countertenor David Daniels who sang Caesar in Los Angeles (2001) and San Francisco (2002).

0And now, courtesy of San Diego Opera, we have a true contralto to add to the list of conquering heroes — Ewa Podles, the fabulous Polish artist whose voice is virtually sui generis. That is to say, nobody else on earth these days sounds quite like her. Her voice has a deep resonance, a sense of total authority and command (which is one reason she is so perfect as Erda, the Earth Mother, in Wagner’s Ring cycle), and yet she has trained it to navigate the perilous twists and turns and runs and ornaments of the bel canto and Baroque era composers. Such agility in a voice of this size is surprising, although not unprecedented.

Opening night found Podles in largely excellent form. It was thrilling to hear her. However, this “trouser role” exposed some weaknesses. Compared to a “stage animal” like Vivica Genaux , the dazzling mezzo-soprano who was also performing the trouser role of Sextus, Podles appeared slightly awkward and uncomfortable in her Roman military drag. And occasionally she would shift into her mighty chest tone in so violent a fashion as to give an impression of vocal unevenness.

Genaux, on the other hand, would be impossible to fault. It is safe to say, she energized the entire production every time she came on stage. Musically this artist is amazing. Her beautiful voice is even from one end of the compass to the other, and she does not aspirate à la Cecilia Bartoli. Genaux never sounds like a machine gun in those wildly rapid vocal passages. And Genaux passionately embodies her character – which is astounding in the case of Sextus, who, in any synopsis of the story, seems like so much irrelevant dead weight. Forget that! Genaux makes this two-dimensional, fiery, vengeful youth into a real human being.

Brian Asawa as Ptolemy in San Diego Opera’s Not surprisingly, it’s Cleopatra who gets the lion’s share of the opera’s gorgeous numbers. Her character is also the most thoughtfully developed and delineated. Soprano Lisa Saffer, making her SDO debut, is a stunning singer with a gorgeous and unique vocal timbre. She was especially excellent in the seductive “V’adoro pupile” and the “Piangero,” as well as in her closing duet with Caesar, “Caro! Bella!” She was not especially well costumed, unfortunately. Her dresses should say, “This is the legendary queen, Cleopatra, the most beautiful woman in the world” — but they don’t. The style of this show, more or less authentic from the point of view of production history, made use of 18th century costumes mixed with others that looked plausibly Roman, Egyptian, or just plain exotic. As the treacherous and effeminate Tolomeo (Ptolemy), Cleopatra’s bother, countertenor Brian Asawa got all the eye-popping costumes. And Asawa has never been in better form. If he feels threatened at all by the increasing countertenor hoard, he must be channeling that emotion into singing and acting like a house on fire.

Although the opera’s main plot really revolves about the romance between Caesar and Cleopatra, 18th-century operas abound in minor characters and subplots. In this performance, however, the secondary goings-on were every bit as interesting as the story proper. All the singers were so superb that one never felt, “Oh, here comes that tiresome What’s Her Name again.” For this listener, the evening flashed by in anticipation of the next terrific bits – and that includes singing by James Scott Sikon as Curio, Alfred Walker as Achillas, Mark Crayton as Nirenus, and especially mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzmán as Cornelia, Pompey’s long-suffering widow. Though Guzmán appeared a bit vocally underpowered for this occasion, she was always a moving and sympathetic presence.

Unfortunately, not everybody in the audience was entranced by the proceedings, and before the 3 ½ hours (with two intermissions) had transpired, many free seats appeared to be opening up in the orchestra section. Well, Handel’s operas are an acquired taste, no question. And the composer’s insistence on one da capo (aba) aria after another wears many people out. Yet Julius Caesar does include some very beautiful duets and some deftly minimal use of a chorus. Considering the demands of the form, it is perhaps surprising Handel used a chorus at all. In any event, the choral contributions (under the direction of chorus master Timothy Todd Simmons), were excellent, however spare.

The score, played by a small orchestra including a baroque cello, theorbo and harpsichord, was wonderfully and modishly conducted by Kenneth Montgomery. As for the sets (John Pascoe) and costumes (Michael Stennett) and stage direction (John Copley) – well, they strike more than a note of familiarity to anyone who has seen Julius Caesar staged over the years. This reviewer’s first experience of the opera was the Sills/Treigle production in Los Angeles, followed later by three English National Opera revivals of a show originally designed ages ago. Bits and pieces of the current set look awfully familiar – almost like memories of an old friend. Memories that cropped up again as recently as the San Francisco production in 2002. It’s difficult to say how someone seeing this show for the first time would react. The faux marble wing-and-borders look an awful lot like an attempt to fit everything nicely into the Civic Theatre proscenium, and one could hardly describe the show as lavish, even if it is owned by the Met! Still, it’s an attractive design — and the stage direction is refleshingly sensible, so unlike many "progressive" productions of Handel operas these days. If you saw the SFO Alcina (an incomprehensible nightmare of postmodernism), you know what I’m talking about. Just take a look at the DVD!

George Frideric Handel’s Julius Caesar in Egypt
Apr 15, 18, 21, 23 (m)
Civic Theatre, downtown

Julius Caesar — Ewa Podles
Cleopatra — Lisa Saffer
Cornelia — Suzanna Guzman
Sextus — Vivica Genaux
Ptolemy — Brian Asawa
Achillas — Alfred Walker
Nirenus — Mark Crayton
Curio — James Scott Sikon

Conductor — Kenneth Montgomery
Director — John Copley

Scenic Designer — John Pascoe
Costume Designer — Micheal Stennett
Lighting Designer — Thomas J.Munn
Wig and makeup designer — Steven W. Bryant
Chorus Master — Timothy Todd Simmons
Supertitles — Philip Kuttner
Diction Coach — Emanuela Patroncini

Performance dates:
April 15, 18, 21 and 23.


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