in: Reviews

April 23, 2017

Handel’s Caesar: Emotion Leavened with Wit

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Susanna Phillips and Lawrence Zazzo (Kathy Wittman photo)

Boston Baroque gathered top-notch singers and players at NEC’s Jordan Hall on Friday for Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt), the final concert of its 2016-2017 subscription season.

Turning Jordan Hall’s concert stage into an almost plausible framework for a gripping and sometimes humorous tale of love and revenge evoking Alexandria in 48-47 BCE, set designer Grace Laubacher added painted side panels that suggested a landscape of palm trees and blue waters or, spun around, morphed into  gold walls of a palace interior. Lighting by Mike Barzcys changed soft brown walls to blood red as the victorious Caesar strode onto the stage at the beginning of Act I. An enormous wrinkled sun hung on the back wall; as the day passed, it changed color to become a moon. Costume designer Amanda Seymour dressed Caesar and his tribune Curio in vaguely fascistic black capes and tunics (a little like the doorman in a hotel) in anachronistic contrast to baggy trousers and colorful hats for the Egyptians. The orchestra sat on stage as an active participant in the drama, while the singer-actors entered from the wings and sometimes from the back of the hall.

Handel’s French-style overture—two strains in pompous dotted rhythms followed by a sprightly fugue sounded in clear, crisp period style. Act I opened as Caesar, having defeated Pompey at Pharsalia in Greece and followed him to Egypt, entered in triumph with his tribune Curio to the sound of “Viva” from the chorus. In one of stage director Mary Birnbaum’s many whimsical touches, Cesar shook the sand from his shoes to remind us he had landed on a beach. Cornelia, Pompey’s wife, and her son Sesto arrived to sue for peace. But the Egyptian general, Achilla, hoping to curry favor with the conqueror, offered him Pompey’s head displayed on a platter. Appalled, Caesar dispatched Achilla with a spectacular “rage aria.”

Fans of 18th-century opera have gradually gotten used to high voices in heroic roles, and with the increasing availability of fine countertenors along with women adept in “trouser” roles; editors thus no longer feel the need to transpose soprano and alto parts down to tenor or bass ranges. In fact, Giulo Cesare has only two low male parts, Achilla and Curio. Handel created the role of Caesar for the famous Italian alto castrato Francesco Bernardi (known as Senesino), for many years the lead singer at the Royal Academy of Music. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo proved to be more than a match for the role’s demands, with brilliant high notes, a sonorous low range, and supple roulades. As Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler of Egypt, John Holiday’s more penetrating timbre projected the tyrant’s scheming and erratic nature. A third countertenor, Douglas Dodson, played the wily Nireno, confidante of both Cleopatra and Tolomeo, in softer, more ingratiating tones. In a trouser role, Sesto was sung by soprano Jennifer Rivera, who maintained a convincingly boyish posture and timbre throughout.

Having attempted suicide, Pompey’s widow Cornelia was coveted by both Curio and Achilla, but repulsed them both. Mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero’s “Priva son d’ogni conforto” (I am bereft of all consolation), in melting siciliano rhythm with flute obbligato, carried real emotional power. Bravely swearing to avenge Pompey’s death, Rivera carried off her aria “Vani sono i lamenti” (In vain are laments) with virtuosic panache. Following a middle section in arioso style, the da capo return featured extravagant ornamentation as an expression of youthful bravura. The next scene took us to a room in Cleopatra’s palace, where her confidante Nireno has brought her up to date on recent events. She will visit Caesar and win his support against her brother. Tolomeo then appeared, only to be taunted by Cleopatra, who declared him fit only for love, not war. At once imperious and seductive, soprano Susanna Phillips sang with limpid clarity and insinuating wit. Alone in his camp, Caesar contemplated an urn containing the ashes of Pompey’s head. His moving accompanied recitative “Alma del gran Pompeo” (Soul of the great Pompey), reflecting on the transitory nature of greatness, was one of the highlights of the first act. He was quickly distracted, however, by the entrance of Cleopatra in disguise. who introduced herself as “Lidia,” her attendant, and begged for justice against Tolomeo, who had stolen her mistress’s fortune. Captivated by Lidia, Caesar promised to help. Together, “Lidia” and Nireno played a cleverly staged little flirtation game, ending with a mock-triumphant aria “Tutto puó donna vezzosa” (A charming woman can do anything). Mimicking trumpets, the violins obliged with rollicking fanfares, a foil for Phillips’s virtuosic display. With Cleopatra and Nireno hidden, Cornelia grasped a sword and was about to kill herself when thwarted by Sesto, who repeated his resolve to avenge his father’s death by killing Tolomeo. Visiting Tolomeo in his palace in a show of mock politeness, Caesar revealed his true designs on his rival in a masterful aside: he will corner this cheat as stealthily as a hunter stalks his prey. Accompanying “Va tacito e nascosto,” (Go silently and secretly), an elaborate obbligato part for natural horn (unique in Handel’s operas and beautifully played by Todd Williams) underscored the crafty side of Caesar’s character, as singer and instrumentalist outdid one another in virtuosic fireworks. Finally, having found their way to the palace, where they were arrested by Tolomeo, Sesto was sent to prison and Cornelia to work in the gardens of the harem. Their beautifully matched farewell duet, “Son’ nata a lagrimar” (I was born to weep) brought the first act to a somber close.

Susanna Phillips (Kathy Wittman photo)

Act II opened with a pageant entirely staged by Cleopatra. After an opening Sinfonia by nine instruments representing the nine muses, she appeared as Virtue descending from Parnassus, emerging from behind a silvery curtain at the back of the stage with two of her maidens, all three equipped with resplendent golden wings. Cleopatra’s famous Largo, “V’adoro, pupille, saette d’amore” (I adore you, eyes, lightning bolts of love), revealed her passionate side in a melody so captivating that, after the minor mode middle section, Caesar cried out in rapture before the da capo return. Phillips’s rendering was simply gorgeous, as were the muted violins of the accompaniment. The doors of Parnassus closed again on this vision, but Nireno assured Caesar that Lidia would lead him to Cleopatra. As the warlike Caesar plotted to seize Tolomeo, the amorous Caesar could now plot to catch another kind of prey. In this simile aria, “Se in fiorito ameno prato” (If in a lovely flowered meadow), the dulcet tones of a solo violin (Christina Day Martinson) imitated the chirping and trilling of birdsong.

In the gardens of Tolomeo’s harem, Cornelia, dagger in hand, again contemplated suicide in a quiet lament “Piangete, oh mesti lumi,” (Weep, sad eyes). The Egyptian general Achilla (David McFerrin) also had designs on her. His declaration of love, however, “Se a me non sei crudele” (If you are not cruel to me), featured wide and dissonant melodic intervals, often doubled by the bass instruments, that lent a sinister tone to his protestations. With ringing high notes and a substantial low range, McFerrin’s characterization met its mark. Threatening rape, Tolomeo’s “Se, spietata, il tuo rigore sveglia l’odio in questo sen” (If, cruel one, your severity awakens hatred in this breast) approached a paroxysm of rage and jealousy.

Handel is unlikely to have known Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea, but the scene in Cleopatra’s garden couldn’t help reminding one of Poppea’s garden scene. Awaiting Caesar, Cleopatra prayed to Venus to lend her charms— “Venere bella” —evoking her own catlike charm with a rising melodic figure mirrored by the violins. When Curio arrived to announce that Caesar had been betrayed and was in danger, Cleopatra’s self-confident mood changed to one of anxiety and suffering. In a dramatic accompanied recitative, “Che sento?” (What do I hear) and tragic aria— “Se pietà di me non senti” (If you do not feel pity for me)—punctuated by interrupted cadences and sudden leaps, Phillips displayed the full range of her vocal and dramatic abilities. Beyond mere virtuoso decoration, the ornaments introduced in the da capo repeat served to heighten the emotional impact of her singing. In the parallel story of Sesto’s vengeance, all appeared to have been lost by the end of the second act: Achilla had snatched the sword Sesto intended to use to kill Tolomeo. In “L’aure che spira tiranno e fiero” (The air that cruel tyrant breathes) he brandished a blinding flashlight, the only weapon he had left, a comic take on the revenge aria with all its bravura flourishes.

Act III opened with an unexpected twist: Achilla, revolted by Tolomeo’s barbarity, announced he had changed sides and joined the Romans. Cleopatra, however, captured by Tolomeo, was forced to kneel before him. Believing Caesar dead and her cause lost, she bemoaned her fate in “Piangerò la sorte mia” (I will mourn my fate), a gentle lament set as a free passacaglia over a repeating bass pattern. The middle section, “My ghost will torment you,” brought back her old rage in a rapid coloratura, only to revert to the minor key lament in the da capo repeat. A scene change and a surprising turn to F major in a gentle ritornello for strings announced the beginning of an elaborate scena for Caesar. Saved miraculously from the perilous waves (“Dall’ondoso periglio salvo”), his thoughts turned to his lost Cleopatra: “Aure, deh, per pietà spirate al petto mio,” (Breezes, for pity’s sake, blow on my breast) and “Dite, dov’é, che fa l’idol del mio sen?” (Tell me, where is the idol of my heart?), juxtaposing recitative and aria in his first display of real passion. Some loose ends of the plot remained to be tied up: mortally wounded in battle, a dying Achilla handed a seal to Sesto that enabled him to enter Tolomeo’s palace and stab the tyrant to death. The triumphant final scene was introduced by a Sinfonia with the two pairs of horns playing antiphonally to striking effect. Cornelia and Cleopatra, now freed, joined the crowd of Romans and Egyptians to acclaim Caesar, as he and Cleopatra celebrated their love in two joyous duets framed by a stately bourrée.

In this long opera, two plot lines that operate independently finally converge. Working with an excellent librettist, the Italian poet Nicola Francesco Haym, Handel produced a work of tremendous musical and dramatic variety, displaying his unrivalled ability to depict human emotions in one aria after another, while enlivening the conventions of opera seria with irony and humor. All the soloists were outstanding, both dramatically and vocally. If the stage direction was occasionally a little far-fetched, it included many inspired moments and held our attention through a three-hour evening that simply did not come across as long. Martin Pearlman coordinated the whole, leading the skilled Boston Baroque instrumentalists with verve and sensitivity. He deserves our gratitude for this fine production.

The full ensemble (Kathy Wittman photo)

Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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