Julius Caesar

caesarLast night Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s “SummerFest” gave the first of three performances of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Giulio Cesare, presented in English, as is customary with the company, as Julius Caesar. The first thing said before an analysis of the performance must be that such beautiful singing and virtuoso conducting has not been heard in this city in quite a while, and left a spellbound audience applauding and shouting with a bravado very rarely demonstrated here.

The opera, or dramma per musica (or opera seria), to place the work in “historical correctness,” has been performed for the better part of three centuries, after its first production at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket, London, in February 1724, was a notable success. Händel made various changes to the work, as with most of his other operas, adding new arias while cutting others, and the piece as presented today is heavily altered from what its first audience heard – not a bad thing, because there are versions of the score that run for the better part of four hours. This is also fortunate in its way, in that the age of the castrato is mercifully long gone, and with that age the opera, too, went by the wayside for the most part until the twentieth century, when it was revived in altered, shortened versions – re-orchestrated and with the castrato roles transposed down for baritones, tenors and even basses. But with the rise of the countertenor, it’s now possible to hear the singing much in the same way as it was originally presented. The opera was virtually unknown in America until the 1960s, when the New York City Opera revived it under the musical supervision of Julius Rudel, an early champion of Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, and directed by Pittsburgh Opera’s Tito Capobianco.Bottom or Top photo

Händel composed the music to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, who used as inspiration an even earlier libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani, which had been set to music by Antonio Sartorio in 1676. Briefly, the plot begins with Caesar’s attempts to avoid civil war in Egypt, and Cleopatra’s seduction of him as part of her plan to strip her brother Ptolemy of the throne. The original three acts are pared to two, with Chatham Baroque providing the authentic instrumental accompaniment.

The performance may only be described in superlatives by an auditor who was left speechless by all that unfolded on the stage and in the orchestra. Costumes, scenic effects – all are vague memories. What remains are vivid recollections of some of the finest singing and playing heard in many years of countless operatic performances, and the limited staging, costuming that gave historical events the feel of an unknown place in time, a beautifully blonde Cleopatra and a Julius Caesar that hardly suggested the image conjured by ancient Roman coins meant nothing against the remarkably fine rendition of the music.

Andrey Nemzer as Julius Caesar and Lara Lynn McGill as Cleopatra
Andrey Nemzer as Julius Caesar and Lara Lynn McGill as Cleopatra

Andrey Nemzer, the acclaimed countertenor of the Metropolitan Opera, is in Pittsburgh to sing the title role. His brilliant voice sounds like a mezzo-soprano with the heft of a tenor, capable of astonishing high tones and cavernous lows, with great dexterity in both registers and everything in the middle. A large part of the opera falls on his shoulders, of course, so it’s fortunate that he possesses such stamina. For the better part of three hours he gave the impression that he couldn’t possibly top the last aria sung, yet each time he did. His performance was little short of amazing.

Lara Lynn McGill returned to give an equally fine performance of Cleopatra. Her beautiful soprano was at its best, and she sang the music with great power and a smooth sense of legato that were positively mesmerizing. Despite the somewhat grim nature of the story, she, like the others, occasionally found a way to inject a little humor into the few opportunities afforded, and acted the part with great abandon that never once interfered with her remarkable vocal interpretation. When she was disguised as “Lydia,” Caesar sings that “she has the voice of a goddess,” and his words rang true.

Katherine Beck as Sextus
Katherine Beck as Sextus

Sara Beth Shelton, as Cornelia, the widow of the unfortunately beheaded Pompey, possesses a rich and velvety mezzo-soprano and commanding presence. Katherine Beck, a young and gifted soprano, sang and acted the part of Sextus, Pompey’s avenging son, and poured out the music with great strength and clear English diction that was characteristic of most of the cast. The scenes in which she sang with Ms. Shelton were of exquisite beauty, and both contributed considerably to the success of the performance.

Sara Beth Shelton as Cornelia and Min Sang Kim as Ptolemy
Sara Beth Shelton as Cornelia and Min Sang Kim as Ptolemy

Min Sang Kim, as Ptolemy, acted the role of Cleopatra’s brother, from whom she wishes to topple from the Egyptian throne, and sang with a somewhat darker-hued countertenor voice. His performance added greatly to the ensemble, and he distinguished himself as a soloist as well. Zachary Wood, as Nirenus, J. Patrick McGill, as Curio, Caesar’s General, and James Eder, as Achillas, Ptolemy’s General, all contributed performances that were effective from vocal and histrionic viewpoints.

Exquisite dancers and a strong ensemble added greatly to the performance, and Walter Morales conducted the large assemblage of period instruments (played by exceptionally gifted musicians) with a sure hand and firm grasp of the score.

Julius Caesar will be repeated at the Falk Auditorium on Sunday, July 17, at 2:00, and Saturday, July 23, at 7:30. Those who enjoy pure bel canto (literally, “beautiful singing”), or wish to discover the glories of this ages old masterpiece, are strongly encouraged to take advantage of hearing the work that Opera Theater of Pittsburgh has labored long and hard to bring to the stage.

For more information about tickets for this and upcoming events, casts, detailed plot synopses and much more, please visit “SummerFest,” or take a look at our season preview.

Special thanks to the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh for two complimentary press tickets. Would you like to see more articles and reviews like this from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!

The production team for Julius Caesar

Music, Georg Friedrich Händel; Libretto, Nicola Francesco Haym; English Translation, Paul Trowell; Director, Dan Rigazzi; Conductor, Walter Morales; Choreographer, Jessica Marino; Scenic Designer, Narges Norouzi; Lighting Designer, Bob Steineck; Costume Designer, Minjee Kasckow; Assistant Costume Designer, Kyle Huber; Hair and Makeup Designer, Deirdre Morgan; Assistant Director, Aaron Dunn; Assistant Conductor/Chorus Master, Joel Goodloe; Assistant Conductor, Jon Erik Schreiber; Pianist, Aida Olarte; Stage Manager, Kathleen Stakenas; Assistant Stage Managers, Sophia Marshall and Emily Gallagher.

Photos by Patti Brahim.