by Peter Jacobi
Feb. 4, 2019
The current Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera Theater production of George Frideric Handel’s opera “Giulio Cesare” is an achievement, not perfection, mind you, but effective, interesting to watch, and definitely worthwhile to listen to.
There are always issues when performing what we refer to as Early Music, that created from the Baroque period and back. Here are a few, generally speaking and/or pertaining to the local presentation. Please remember that an entire field of study (including at IU’s Historical Performance Institute) has grown around how musicians of today should read and use the scores from that period, which often tend to be less informative than those from later on that offer more instructive clues.
This production’s music director and conductor, Gary Thor Wedow, reminds us that Handel wrote four hours of music for “Giulio Cesare,” which the maestro wisely considered too much for most in a modern audience. He did some pruning, and folks this past weekend, save the scholars and the experts, are not likely to have missed the cuts. Plenty remains in a version that reaches the finish line just short of three hours from the start, with the insertion of one intermission.
There is the matter of the orchestra and its instrumentation. Does one use in a full-scale opera house like the MAC an ensemble of period instruments or of instruments usually heard from a pit orchestra? Maestro Wedow, a specialist in preparing Baroque works, chose not IU’s Baroque Orchestra but the Chamber Orchestra. Consequently, that probably pleased some in the audience, displeased others, and made no difference to still others. But a choice it was, with marked artistic results. The Chamber Orchestra and its maestro deserve plaudits for music firmly and affectionately played.
Choice of singers is a major concern. I don’t mean one soprano versus another, or one tenor versus another. For instance, in the past, I’ve heard male and female voices sing the role of Julius Caesar, even males with different high voices: a male soprano and a countertenor (and there are differences). Actually, the role, as were several others, was written for an alto castrato. Well, there aren’t any more of those or shouldn’t be.
Maestro Wedow and colleagues chose a basso for the opening night cast and a female mezzo-soprano for the Saturday. The result was dramatically different. In terms of vocal quality, both choices — bass Rivers Hawkins and mezzo-soprano Grace Skinner — brought strength to their portrayals, he a greater vocal power and authority, she the greater vocal flexibility. Bu the entire soundscape changed from one night to the next.
And just where does all this happen, the story, based somewhat on history, of Caesar visiting Egypt and meeting Cleopatra? Well, that meeting happened in ancient Egypt, 48-47 B.C. The IU production’s designer, Allen Moyer, gives us an Egyptian background, sometimes using two of the Great Pyramids, at others the Sphynx (from different angles to suggest the action has moved). There also are interiors cleverly created by roll-ons and walls and ceiling that shift up and down.
In terms of historic period, I’ve seen the story unfolding at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in modern colonial times early in the 20th century. The IU production chosen by set designer Moyer and stage director Robin Guarino selected the 18th century during Napoleon’s French campaign in Egypt and close to Handel’s lifetime. I was not bothered by the shift, in that the sets and Linda Pisano’s costuming and Julie Duro’s evocative lighting made the pictures one observed so striking.
Add to these matters, a physical issue for one of the cast members. As the printed program states: “Due to an injury, Gretchen Krupp will sing the role of Cornelia from off-stage during her designated performances while Yujia Chen performs the role on stage.” Mezzo-soprano Krupp on Friday did her sitting on the edge of the orchestra pit while fellow mezzo Chen acted and mimed the role; on Saturday, Chen took over her assigned role entirely. They both were excellent as the grieving widow of the would-be Egyptian ruler Pompey, murdered by Cleopatra’s evil brother Tolomeo, the usurping King of Egypt.
The production’s two sopranos selected to portray Cleopatra, Ahyoung Jeong on opening night and Virginia Mims the next, were outstanding in handling music of utmost difficulty, often fiendishly rapid and jumpy and reaching for the stratosphere. They also theatrically attuned themselves to the character and what happens to her: an assured flirt as co-ruler (with her brother Tolomeo) in act 1, as a despairing woman with seeming lost power given two gorgeously sad arias by the composer in act 2, and as a triumphant woman of power in the final act, a ruler finally granted the power of a queen by a magnanimous and admiring Caesar, power with no more possible interference from her nasty brother.
The nasty brother received his due just before opera’s end by knife thrust. But before the knife cut to the quick, the role had been villainously portrayed by male soprano Elijah McCormack on Friday and countertenor Hunter Patrick Shaner on Saturday. In a movie house, we might have hissed the pair of them.
The important role of Sesto, son of the slain Pompey, was given to a pair of impressive mezzos, Gabriela Fagen and Emily Warren. And the remaining cast members added their energies to the enterprise, making the whole a success, very difficult to achieve but definitely accomplished.