This Saturday at Grass Valley’s Del Oro Theatre, Sierra Cinemas in partnership with Music in the Mountains will present Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” as the final offering of this season’s The Met Opera Live in HD.
Opera was barely out of its infancy, well, its early adolescent stage, when George Frideric Handel began its transformation into the popular entertainment it became. First performed in 1724, “Giulio Cesare” remains the most favored of the composer’s 42 operas. It bears the Handel trademarks: quite demanding vocal prowess, great emotion unique for its time, transparently clear and crisp orchestration. Handel was the consummate musician’s musician; Beethoven said of him that he was “the master of us all... the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb. ...Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”
The plot concerns itself with Caesar’s defeat of Pompey, his conquest of Egypt, and his seduction by Cleopatra. As with all Baroque opera, the story is long, convoluted, frequently absurd, and bears little, if any, resemblance to actual historical events. None of that matters, however, as what is true in “Giulio Cesare” is the depth of characterization and the emotional verity that can be expressed by an excellent cast. The role of Caesar was written for the castrato Senesino. The Met production features the remarkable high voice of David Daniels (no surgical excision needed!) in a performance that has drawn raves. The marvelous Natalie Dessay (I’ve been lucky enough to see her several times!) sings Cleopatra to these notices: “Dessay was simply brilliant as Cleopatra. She has always been one of the best acting sopranos… she ranges seamlessly from seductress to desperate defeat to jubilant triumph. And she can dance.” The production design draws on the 19th century legacy of British colonialism and the clash of cultures symbolized by the British Raj in India. So, the conquering Romans equal the Brits and the subjugated Egyptians are recast as East Indians. There is even Bollywood-influenced dancing! Before you cry foul, consider that in Handel’s day the opera would have been performed in 18th century costume and there would have been no attempt or inclination to present the work visually in historical setting or dress. A parallel circumstance exists when one is staging Shakespeare.
This will certainly be a vibrant and exciting treat for opera fans. If you know of anyone who isn’t convinced that the experience of opera can be richly rewarding, this production would serve as a useful introduction to the uninitiated.
John Deaderick is a local theater instructor, director, actor, and the author of “Make Sweet the Minds of Men: Early Opera and Tragic Catharsis,” available at Amazon.com.