Come in from the cold and simmer in the Egyptian heat with ‘Giulio Cesare’

By Peter Jacobi H-T columnist
Jan. 27, 2019

Says Gary Thor Wedow of the Indiana University Opera Theater’s new production that he’ll conduct: “It promises to be a knockout, with set design by Allen Moyer, costumes by Linda Pisano, and lighting by Julie Duro.

“It will visually stun you,” Maestro Wedow continues about the show that opens in the Musical Arts Center this coming Friday evening. “And then, the orchestra and singers will stimulate you with brilliant music and, in the meantime, give you a little history, a travelogue, a lesson in political intrigue and an epic love story all told with universal, unending truth. Caesar will come, will see, and he will conquer you!”

Wedow, a specialist in music of the Baroque, is a native of lndiana and an alum of the Jacobs School of Music, a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School, an active guest conductor elsewhere, including previous productions here, these of two other Handel operas: “Xerxes” and “Rodelinda.”

“Giulio Cesare,” he says, “is a very special opera for me for several reasons. It was the first opera I conducted here many years ago after I graduated as a student, and my dear mentor, Thomas Durrn, was in the audience. The current production unites me with director Robin Guarino, a dear friend (and distinguished chair in opera at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music) and frequent collaborator. We first did a marvelous production of this opera for Seattle Opera starring Ewa Podles, which was a turning point in both of our careers. Handel’s opera is a masterpiece, so every time I return to it, I find new things to admire and to love.

“On a very personal note, I remember when I was a student at IU, turning pages for Beverly Sills’ accompanist on the stage of the IU Auditorium, as she sang arias from ‘Giulio Cesare’ in recital, she asked me about all the voice teachers here with whom she had sung or who she had heard when she was a student in New York. That was a star-struck moment for me.”

My wife and I have seen several productions of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” here and elsewhere. One, however, we remember most, up to now.

The time is November 2007. The place is Chicago. On that season’s repertoire at the Lyric Opera of Chicago was “Giulio Cesare.” We drove up from Bloomington for one of our weekends featuring what the Lyric then billed as its “0” series, its selected performances for out-of-towners. That meant evenings for which the company held blocks of seats and reserved them for fans who came from all over the United States and elsewhere. Through the “0” period of years, in addition to outstanding opera, we met some fascinating opera lovers, a few we remain in touch with.

The trip up had been arduous because the weather was rotten: cold, windy, bitter. Handel was the fare for that Friday evening. We were tired. We yearned for rest, closely available food, bed time. Our hotel, a Frank Lloyd Wright-styled charmer where we always stayed, was across the Loop from the opera house. We were hard-pressed to go rather than remain at our cozy lodging. But my wife reminded me of the tickets we had purchased, expensive ones. So, we changed clothes and, with no empty cabs in sight, headed on foot for a long night of Handel, reluctantly.

But they don’t call “Giulio Cesare” Handel’s most popular opera today for nothing. What started out as a reluctant trek turned into one of our most memorable operatic evenings ever, one we’re still grateful to have experienced. The delicious production came courtesy of England’s Glyndebourne Festival and the creative mind of designer David McVicar. The remarkable cast, headed by countertenor David Daniels in the title role and Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra, along with other fine singers and artistic elements, came courtesy of Lyric. The music came courtesy of composer Handel. We were mesmerized.

As New York Times critic Steve Smith wrote in his review, the production “stands out for sheer audacity,” explaining that McVicar relocated “the opera’s setting from the time of the Roman Empire to the British colonial era in the early 20th century. Caesar and his pith-helmeted, rifle-toting soldiers maintain stiff upper lips when confronting the exotically glamorous Egyptians, who try to sway the balance of power through seduction and deceit.”

Neither my wife nor I am particularly fond of dramatically altered times or places given to familiar and fondly-thought-of operatic masterpieces, but we fell in love with the Lyric production, its charm, its rightness and an evening that glowed after having started out on our part with such timid desire to see it.

What’s to come this weekend, we have only hints. What we’ll think of the IU Opera Theater presentation, we can’t predict. But the folks collected to put the show together seem to be wise choices, not only for their talents and enthusiasms, but for their experience working with young musicians, their ability to enthuse and train them.

Stage director Guarino does give us a hint on focus: “We have set our production during the French campaign of Egypt. Napoleon, who was born 10 years after Handel’s death, was a lifelong aficionado on the history of Caesar and was very influenced by him. There were parallels: Both were highly educated, ambitious politicians, and generals. Both fought civil wars in Egypt. Both were consumed by their passion for the rights of citizens and fought the European and, in Napoleon’s case, British monarchy. Both became emperors to advance their political agenda. There is wonderful image research on Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt: paintings, lithographs depicting the French camp in front of the great pyramids. In Jacque Louis David’s painting of Napoleon’s coronation, he is depicted as Caesar wearing a crown of laurels and Roman-influenced robes.”

Guarino says she is attracted by Cleopatra as “brilliant and strong and a comparable states-person to Caesar. I am committed to giving agency to women in the baroque, classic, standard, and contemporary productions of opera.”

As for the local production, she says both casts “are lovely and bring the full expanse of their imagination, training and artistry to their depiction. They handle both the drama and the comedy well. It has been fun.”

Wedow says rehearsals “have been going swimmingly. From the beginning, we’ve focused on the opera from two vantage points: looking at it from the text and the recitatives, with their rhetoric and dramatic opportunities, which carry the action from aria to aria, and from the arias themselves, which give the singers chance for vocal display, dramatic reflection, and splendid ornamentation. Many of the singers have devised their own ornaments, based on 18th century treatises and manuals, and everyone is trilling away like warblers. It might be cold outside in Bloomington, but inside the MAC, it is simmering in Egyptian heat.”

In Wedow’s estimation, “Handel wrote some of the most splendid music imaginable: dramatic music that explores the human soul. Not only does his music delight the ear, but it also ignites passions and stimulates thought as we delve into our deeper human nature. He had it performed by his greatest singers and orchestra. They were rock stars. Then, because Handel was such a terrific psychologist, he gives you characters with whom you immediately identity and are interested in. These are people you might meet daily in the course of your life or see on television or read about in the newspaper. In the case of ‘Giulio Cesare,’ these are world leaders caught in political intrigue but also driven by personal passions.”

So, it’s on to Egypt in an unexpected century, the 18th, but Caesar and Cleopatra will be there, along with Handel’s score.

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