The IU Opera Theatre’s production of George Frederic Handel’s setting of the Caesar and Cleopatra story really fits with Arts Week’s theme of Politics in the Arts. There’s international politics as Rome’s Caesar extends his sway over Egypt with the victory of Pompeo. There’s court and family politics as Queen Cleopatra and her bother King Tolemeo seek Caesar’s support. There’s more than a bit of sexual politics as the wily Cleopatra woos Caesar.
Saturday night’s Caesar was counter tenor Andrew Rader. Rader combined a lovely sound, breath control that allowed phrases to go on to very impressive lengths and most of the time a feel for the heft of Caesar and yet his romantic vulnerability. As yet the voice isn’t big enough to fill the Musical Arts Center, but it was lovely. His duet with the very graceful onstage violinist Romuald Grimbert-Barre was one of the high points of the evening.
Soprano Jacqueline Brechen glittered as the haughty, scheming and powerful Cleopatra. Her singing was ever secure and her acting as it ranged from the powerful to the vulnerable nicely gauged. The IU production brings out the brother-sister rivalry that Cleopatra has with Tolomeo to both chilling and humorous lengths. Tolemeo was played with gleefully evil relish by counter tenor Dominic Lim. Lim’s voice is light for the part, but his over the top acting and dancing were a hit.
Julie Pefanis sang the part of the sorrowful Cornelia, the wife of the slain Pompey. She was ever sympathetic and her duet work with her son Sesto, Ann Sauder was very effecting. In this production, the part of Sesto is given a bit more heft complete with a nicely done bit of off stage mayhem. Bass baritone Cody Madina as the Egyptian General Achilla had the only lead part sung by a man in the male register. He has a big voice that’s still finding some it subtleties. Lydia Dahling was ever on the mark as Nireno, Cleopatra’s confidant. Antonio Santos had just the right note of confident authority as Caesar’s tribune.
Throughout Giulio Cesare conductor Gary Thor Wedow moved the production along with an easy authority. I especially enjoyed the great variety of accompaniment. Sometimes the full chamber orchestra played. Sometimes accompaniment was reduced to the barest essentials with a continuo group of harpsichordist, Yonit Kosovske, theorbo, archlute and baroque guitarist Adam Wead and cellist Alan Ohkubo. And there were many different combinations in between.
Guest stage director Tom Diamond has done a fine job in both offering the singers plenty of space in which to sing and then enough business during the interludes to keep the drama in focus. There’s also plenty of action in this Giulio Cesare, some very clever staging of the conflict between Caesar and scheming Tolomeo and some just gorgeous scenes. The sets come from an earlier production, but Diamond’s use of them and the lighting by Michael Schwandt make them all very much a new experience.
There are only two chorus numbers in Giulio Cesare. One opens the drama with a welcome to the conquering Caesar to Egypt and the other celebrates his second victory and the crowning of Cleopatra to reign in Egypt. The original plan for the production by director Tom Diamond was to eliminate the choruses and to import body builders to play the non singing roles. This didn’t work out and the core of the black clad Romans and the bare chested Egyptians along with Cleopatra’s diaphanously clad hand maidens came from IU faculty member Tim Nobles’ studio. With the singers in place, conductor Gary Thor Wedow opted to add a very welcome final chorus that nicely fills out the emotional arc of the drama.
IU’s production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare continues with final performances Friday and Saturday March 6th and 7th.
Listen to George Walker’s interview with Conductor Gary Thor Wedow and stage director Tom Diamond.