As Gary Wedow conducts the IU Opera Theater’s orchestra in the overture for Handel’s Giulio Cesare set designer Allen Moyer’s pyramids and the stature of the Sphinx are in the distance. The Sphinx’s nose is damaged. That’s a clue that this isn’t 48 B.C.E. Further clues appear as Linda Pisano costumes Caesar and his entourage like soldiers from the Napoleonic period of his Egyptian adventures. This allows for some neatly soldierly costumes in contrast with the gorgeous costumes of the Egyptians and makes a certain sense, but audience confusion may reign in the opening scenes.
Saturday night’s Cesare was mezzo Grace Skinner. Handel treats the Roman ruler as a noble figure most effective in his thoughtful lamentations on the death of his rival Pompeo, his love for Cleopatra and his courage in battle. Virginia Mims’ Cleopatra was a powerfully singing central figure; challenging her brother Tolomeo for the throne, ensnaring Cesare in Allen Moyer’s lovingly constructed mini-baroque theatre and dominating the stage with her singing.
Yujia Chen was Cornelia, potently lamenting the murder of her husband Pompeo and resisting the overtures of his eloquent murderer Achilla, Steele Fitzwater. (In the alternate cast, the injured Gretchen Krupp will sing Cornelia from off stage as Yujia Chen mimes.) Her son Sesto, Emily Warren gives a good account of herself as a boy bent on revenge. Their loving duet at the end of the first act was very moving.
Counter tenor Hunter Shaner was Cleopatra’s petulant rival and brother Tolomeo. A scene of mad cackling laughter led to the most applause for his character.
Blake Beckenmeyer as Cleopatra’s servant Nireno sang well and frequently helped make the drama more accessible. Drew Comer anchored Cesare’s forces in conference and battle.
Stage director Robin Guarino has used the resources of the Musical Arts Center to make lots of interesting choices. Pictures ranged from the wide desert to intricately dramatic intimate internal sets. Moving those forward and back created a low rumble and as the modest Chamber Orchestra played it sounded like thunder. Handel’s opera arias frequently go through a series of variations displaying the singers’ virtuosity and taking a while. Frequently the director let us focus on the artist as the rest of the cast froze in place. A nice touch. Saturday’s audience was a little hesitant to applaud the individual scenes, but gradually as the drama became clearer became more involved.
IU Opera Theater’s production of Handel’s Giulio Gesare conducted by Gary Wedow has final performances Friday February 8 and Saturday February 9 at seven-thirty. An informative talk about the opera by Devon Nelson at six-thirty in the upper gallery will make the setting, the characters and the action of the evening even more enjoyable.
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker
Here’s a P.S. the American Handel Festival 2019 is meeting at IU this week. Thursday at seven in the Musical Arts Center’s lobby, musicologist Ellen Rosand presents the opening talk on Handel’s Music. Saturday night there’s actually a competing event. Handel’s “Parnasso in festa” a work written to celebrate the marriage of Anne, Princess Royal and Prince William of Orange. will be performed in Auer Hall with the voices of Concentus and the Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Thomas.