Thursday, November 13, 2008

Great Caesar’s ghost: Lyric Opera struggles heroically with its first-ever Baroque opera

By Paul Horsley

Handel operas are a bit like Shakespeare plays: The stilted conventions governing their language make for hard work, not just for performers but for modern audiences. Yet the power of their drama and poetry keeps us coming back.

It is possible, of course, to create a breathless dramatic experience from a Handel opera, and the Lyric Opera’s current production of Julius Caesar makes a valiant effort. Running three hours despite rather liberal cuts, it features several leading Baroque-specialist singers (including two countertenors, or “guys who sing high”), a mad, glittering array of new costumes designed by Mary Traylor and a starkly architectural set formerly used at the New York City Opera.

But something felt off-kilter to me when I saw the production on Wednesday. Mark Streshinsky’s stage direction takes a laissez-faire approach, which throws much of the weight onto Handel’s music. As the 1724 opera contains some of the composer’s finest music, it can withstand such a burden under the right circumstances. But this production lacked high finish: Despite some fine efforts from the orchestra pit under Ward Holmquist’s musical direction, it needed more polish in the ensemble between singers and orchestra, and more forethought onstage into motivations and movements. And frankly it was a mixed affair vocally, good on the whole but seldom outstanding.

Leading the cast was Christine Brandes, whom Lyric audiences admired in the role of the Governess in The Turn of the Screw in 2005. She is a sure-footed Baroque singer, with penetrating vocal control and the ability to draw your eyes to her slightest movements. After establishing her vocal dominance in “Non disperar, chi sa?” she showed her stylistic expertise in arias like the ravishing Act 2 “Se pietà di me non senti,” embellishing the repeated da capo section with taste, virtuosity and even playfulness. She made the Act 2 love scene convincing when Caesar could not.

Likewise Gloria Parker as Cornelia — despite a public announcement that she was “partially incapacitated” but would perform anyway — sang her numerous lament arias with pathos and stylishness. Her duet with Sextus, “Son nata a logrimar,” achieved a musical and dramatic intimacy that rivaled that between Caesar and Cornelia.

David Walker’s Caesar was a more complex affair, sung with stylistic command but not always what I’d call vocal mastery. Looking more frat boy than emperor, he sang with a smallish voice that struggled to produce a consistently flowing melodic line. He was in fine form in the famous “Se in fiorito ameno prato,” which featured violin soloist Kanako Ito in the orchestra pit, who sometimes delivered the imitative phrases more musically than he did.

Christine Abraham as Sextus completely captivated me with her Act 1 “Cara speme, questo core,” delivered with beauty of phrasing and command, both of which characterized her performance through the evening. But I felt she overplayed the awkward-boy movements throughout, and her ungainly costumes were more pageboy than royalty.

José Lemos played Ptolemy as a wanton, oversexed adolescent, perhaps appropriate considering that the historical figure is thought to have been in his early teens. His diminutive frame lent credence to the bizarre portrayal, though only in Act 3 did he wear something regal enough to support Ptolemy’s status. Despite a lack of agility in rapid passages, his countertenor has a silky, melodious upper range, which he used to great effect at the beginning of Act 3.

The stage direction barely provided enough to keep the eye busy during the longish arias, which is one of the reasons we spent so much time pondering individual vocal qualities. But there were ample directing gaffes, too, like the slow-mo battle scene in silhouette. And Cleopatra’s attendants (the “Muses of Parnassus”), who sometimes echoed her gestures in unison with her, made me think of those over-the-top TV commercials for Calvin Klein’s “Obsession.”

Two performances of Julius Caesar remain, on Friday, November 14 and Sunday, November 16. Call 816-471-7344 or go to

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