Musicologists will tell you that Handel’s 1724 opera, Guilio Cesare in Egitto is a superb example of opera seria, a baroque-era form that involves far more prescriptions in form and manner than simply being “serious.” The story, for example, should be taken from ancient history. Characters should have a certain number of arias spread evenly through the evening—to show the contrasting sides of their personalities. The arias should be in the da capo form, a structure which requires singers to repeat the first section of the song and add personal flourishes and ornaments. Musicologists will also tell you that Julius Caesar in Egypt (as it is translated), was one of a flurry of operas Handel composed for the recently built King’s Theater in London’s Haymarket district, and will tell you, as well, that it is one of his most distinguished works.
That matters maybe a little to 21st-century audiences, such as the people who saw the Florentine Opera’s production of Julius Caesar this weekend at the Marcus Center. What matters more is that the music is beautiful, the drama gripping, and the setting engaging. And on those counts, the Florentine mostly delivered.
William Florescu and his company have had great successes with Baroque Opera in the recent past—Handel’s Semele in 2009 and a 2011 double bill that included Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas John Blow’s Venus & Adonis. The big difference here was venue. Staging Cesare in Uihlein Hall requires a more Grand Opera approach than the previous Baroque outings, which were presented in the Pabst Theatre and the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall. The orchestra was substantial by Baroque standards (individual players weren’t listed, but I’d guess around 30 musicians). Noelle Stollmack’s inventive set spanned the breadth of the vast Uihlein Hall stage, using geometric, plain white flats to suggest the imposing but spare neoclassical architecture of Fascist Italy. That’s the “where” and “when” of director Eric Einhorn’s setting for the opera, and that era was evoked with a few telling set details and projections suggesting Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. It was also confused by Christianne Myers costume choices for the Egyptians of the story, who seemed to be attending a themed costume ball as much as dealing with the working affairs of the 20th-century state.
But the venue and scale presented the biggest challenge to the singers. In the title role, mezzo Deanne Meek was a confident and expressive Caesar, but her voice seemed to sit deep in her chest rather than project into the hall. Countertenor Ian Howell had similar problems as Tolomeo, which didn’t help his standing as the story’s “heavy.” Eve Gigliotti had some beautiful moments, particularly in the heart-wrenching Act One finale, a duet with Adriana Zabala, who offered a strong and musically vivid performance as Sesto.
As Cleopatria, Ava Pine was the standout in the cast. She had a strong vocal presence, and brought some nuances of character to the famous queen. Vampy and scheming, but also passionate, Pine gave the role both personality and great musicality. When she was on stage, it was easy to see why Guilio Cesare is one of the most treasured operas in the repertory.