Tonight: Five hours at the Lyric

*Rubs hands in anticipation*

A five hour production of Julius Caesar at the Lyric Opera tonight.

Review from WSJ:

An Updated and Ravishing ‘Giulio Cesare’
By HEIDI WALESON
November 15, 2007; Page D6

It’s not often that one gets to revel in nearly five hours of beautifully sung Handel and be visually entertained at the same time, but that was the case at Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Giulio Cesare” (1724). Lyric Opera imported the hit David McVicar production, first seen at Glyndebourne in 2005, and cast it luxuriously, with many of the same principal singers. Central to the show’s success is its ravishing Cleopatra, soprano Danielle de Niese, who can sing brilliant ornaments and dance at the same time.

Mr. McVicar and set designer Robert Jones updated the opera to the early 20th century, cleverly creating an atmosphere of tension around the interaction of a conquering colonial power and an invaded exotic outpost. Mr. Jones, aided by the subtle work of lighting designer Paule Constable, used a baroque-style succession of columns, with a rippling sea at the rear, for the Romans’ scenes, and draped, colorful silks for the Egyptians’ rooms. Caesar first appeared in an army field office, with typewriter and telegraph, camp chairs and tables. Costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel suggested the British Empire with red uniforms for Caesar’s soldiers (Caesar had a Roman breastplate under his coat), and used a mix of bejeweled harem outfits and English clothing for Cleopatra (a flapper dress, a riding outfit) and her brother Ptolemy (a shooting suit) to imply the creeping influence of the conquerors.

The production capitalized on the opera’s wonderful mix of comedy and seriousness, easily making transitions. Moments like the shocking presentation of Pompey’s severed head (Ptolemy kills him to curry favor with Caesar) and Caesar’s despair at his defeat (fortunately temporary) in Act III had proper gravity; in Act I, when Cleopatra teased her brother about his lack of leadership potential, she sang her aria while dancing Andrew George’s witty, Bollywood-inspired choreography. Comedy and seriousness intermingled as well: Ptolemy’s adolescent petulance had a decadent edge (he pawed his sister on more than one occasion), and as Caesar sang his famous hunting aria, “Va tacito,” he and his opponent, Ptolemy, physically stalked each other in formal dance patterns.

The production also included several arias that are often cut from the opera, making for a richer, more nuanced understanding of the story. Ptolemy’s general, Achillas, had more opportunities than usual to demonstrate his lust for Cornelia, Pompey’s widow. We also got more of the buildup to Cornelia’s young son, Sesto, taking revenge for his father’s murder, and more of the development of the Caesar-Cleopatra romance.

The cast, expertly led by conductor Emmanuelle Haïm, did it all justice, with spirit, suavity and lavish ornamentation of aria repeats that gave meaning to each one. The astonishing Ms. de Niese, whose brilliant high notes and creamy, effortless legato carried through no matter how much oxygen she required for her dancing, captured Cleopatra’s progression from flirt and seductress to a woman capable of despair and dignity. The countertenor David Daniels, who owns the role of Caesar, sounded splendid as the warrior who can also be seduced. As Cornelia, Patricia Bardon was warm and more tormented than usual, since Wayne Tigges (Achillas) got to throw her around and sing menacingly.

Christophe Dumaux’s bright countertenor and athletic prowess (he did an impressive forward flip) made for an especially virulent Ptolemy. Mezzo Maite Beaumont’s impassioned singing as Sesto occasionally lost track of pitch; as Cleopatra’s eunuch servant Nireno, countertenor Gerald Thompson sang and gamely danced his restored Act II aria, with only a bit of breathlessness marring an otherwise delightful performance. Although Ms. Haïm did occasionally exaggerate tempi, making the adagios less supple and anguished than they could be, she did splendid work with the modern Lyric Opera Orchestra (augmented by recorders and continuo players), which had sharp 18th-century-style articulation and provided a elegant framework for this remarkable production.

Update: Just got back, and it was amazing! One of my favorite operas to date. I found it a little disconcerting at first to see a tenor play the macho role of Julius Caesar. But while he seemed a little out of his element in the rallying war arias, he was almost heart-achingly soulful in the slower arias. I liked Sextus’ voice too, but Cleopatra was by far my favorite character. Overall, brilliant pacing, especially considering its length, and lots of thoughtful little comic touches that led to many LOL moments. 😛

Still thinking about the opera… Another excellent review.

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Caesar and Cleopatra, Act II

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