The IU Opera Theatre is presenting a creatively staged, dramatically involving and gorgeously sung production of George Frederic Handel’s Julius Caesar . Handel’s Caesar is the Roman Emperor and conqueror of Egypt.
Designer Robert O’Hearn has placed the drama in costumes and settings that echo the movie version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. However, it is definitely an Egyptian Dune. The set filled with pyramids. Some are plain and some have eyes. There are giant walls of polished granite, gossamer curtains and fairy tale cascades of flower petals. On the backdrop there are shadow projections of a giant cat and of a massive sphinx.
Guest director Stefano Vizioli has plenty of interesting action. There is some that is simply appropriate and efficient stage business and a great deal that helps to further the drama and our insights into the characters. The IU production proves that Handel operas aren’t unwieldy static affairs that simply offer opportunities for fancily ornamented arias. In fact one of the hallmarks of the opera is the growth and change of the principals.
Saturday evening’s cast offered the fine singing of Brandon Mayberry, initially simply a resolute and commanding Caesar, and later a man who could be touched by love and moved by compassion. Mayberry ably seconded by Chris Gobles. Rebecca Ball was Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra. In her singing and acting Ball aptly showed a woman who at first is the bitchiest of queens and sisters but gradually grows to a fuller and more mature person. Michael Mentzel sang well and was quite the cut-up as Cleopatra’s confidant.
Andrew Darling played the Egyptian General Achilla. Darling carried off the role of a man who is by turns merely dutiful, then lustful and finally supportive of the right. Achilla’s King was Cleopatra’s brother the scheming Ptolomy. Nathan Baer sang well and was hateful in a rainbow of ways.
Everyone that I’ve mentioned from IU’s Julius Caesar sang very well. But for me the two standouts, even above these were Hannah Penn and the much put upon Cornelia and Michael Match as her son Sesto. Penn has a lovely mezzo voice that is true, full and wonderfully warm and expressive. Michael Match is the only counter-tenor in either cast of this year’s production. The other parts that Handel wrote for counter tenors or castrati’s are taken an octave down by regular male voices.
A male singer who works in a woman’s range is not part of our serious contemporary dramatic conventions. An early solo vengeance aria by a man singing soprano seemed initially laughable, but Match’s artistry and the range of his voice won me over. His duet with Penn at the end of the first act was a miracle of harmonic richness and dynamic give and take.
Conductor David Effron led the production with an emphasis on pace, rhythm and energy that didn’t slight any of the voluptuous beauty of the vocal or instrumental portions.
The IU Opera Theatre’s production of Handel’s Julius Caesar plays this Friday and Saturday nights. This is a hallmark production that in coming years people will be talking about and looking back to fondly.