We were a bit leery given the local paper’s unfavorable review of the sets and costumes. (We consider opera to be a combined art form in which the visual is important as well as the music and are disappointed when presented with dull or ugly sets and poorly chosen costumes--). However, we liked the effect much better than the newspaper. The plain, white steps, platforms, and drapes evoked either sun-bleached marble columns, sandstone pillars, or the desert dusk with blue pyramidal shadows, depending on the lighting. Intentionally dim rear-projections evoked visions, particularly those of the spirit of Pompey as visualized by his son, the apparition evoking the ranks of cyclopean statues found in Egyptian temples.
All of the small cast sang very well. Ironically, Deanne Meek, in the title role of Caesar, had the least powerful voice, and was occasionally overwhelmed by the baroque-sized orchestra, especially in early scenes. However, as the opera progressed, a better balance was struck.
In the opera, Caesar and his troops have come to Egypt chasing his rival, Pompey. Pompey’s wife, Cornelia (Eve Gigliotti) and son Sesto (Adriana Zabala), come to Caesar as emissaries, offering that Pompey will surrender to Caesar if his life will be spared. Caesar agrees, but Achilleas (Derrick Ballard), general of the Egyptian forces under Tolomeo (Ptolemy, Ian Howell), enters, bearing Pompey’s severed head as a “gift” to Caesar. Tolomeo has had Pompey, who sought refuge with him, slain in hopes that Caesar will then side with him against his sister, Cleopatra (Ava Pine), and make Tolomeo sole ruler of Egypt. Caesar rejects the gift and upbraids the Egyptians for their treachery. Sesto vows that he will avenge his father’s death.
Hearing of Pompey’s death, Cleopatra plans to curry favor with the Romans in her own way. When Achilleas tells Tolomeo of Caesar’s reaction, Tolomeo agrees to let Achilleas take Cornelia as his wife if Achilleas will kill Caesar for him.
The plot continues with Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar, Achilleas’ attempted assassination, civil war between Tolomeo and Cleopatra, in which she is taken prisoner, and Caesar’s return. Achilleas is stabbed at Tolomeo’s order when Tolomeo decides he would rather have Cornelia for himself. The dying Achilleas turns over control of his troops to Sesto, who in turn renders them to Caesar. Caesar stages a rescue of Cleopatra, and, during the assault on the palace, Sesto interrupts Tolomeo’s attempt to ravish his mother, and takes revenge for his father.
With Tolomeo dead and Caesar in control, Cleopatra is triumphantly crowned sole Queen of Egypt.
Again, all the singing was very good, and the parts well acted. Ms. Meek as Caesar was appropriately active and manly, and Ms. Pine’s Cleopatra was interestingly more of a hoyden than a femme fatale. Countertenor Howell was nicely slimy as Tolomeo, he being one of the few cast members whose character was aided by his costume and hairstyle, which reminded me of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of King Herod.
Costuming was distinctly a mixed bag. The setting was “updated” to refer to Italy’s 1930’s invasion of Ethiopia, so Caesar and his aide, Curio (Pablo Siqueiros) wore period-appropriate Italian army officer uniforms. Cornelia’s long skirts were more Edwardian. Achilleas wore Bedouin-style desert robes, while the supernumeraries who pose as his men wore Ptolomaic-era kilts. Cleopatra’s bizarre wardrobe came from no known fashion plate, while her maid, Nirena’s (Erin Gonzales) outfit said “generic peasant girl.”
I must note that the “supers” Shawn Holmes and Nigel Wade, although they have no lines, really did an excellent job as the “Nubian” soldiers, who have quite a lot to do. I think someone had studied 1930’s “B-movies” as they were quite evocative of that period, stalking around the stage, clutching their curved daggers.
The orchestra, conducted by William Boggs, played Handel’s score without detectable flaw, and in general supported the singers appropriately.
Taken all together, we had a enjoyed our afternoon at the opera very much, and were very pleased with this production.
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