Giulio Cesare at Wolf Trap, Reviewed
There are arguments to be made against authenticity. In the classical music landscape, historically informed performance (HIP) has long since passed from niche trend to permanent fixture, applied especially to Baroque operas like Giulio Cesare. But when the original is over four hours long and calls for castrated singers, well, fuck authenticity, right?
So Wolf Trap Opera’s sort-of-not-really faithful rendition of Handel’s 1724 opera makes some wise edits, paring down some of his arias and cutting others out entirely, leaving it a somewhat more manageable three hours and change. Those three castrato roles from its first run are replaced with two countertenors and a mezzo, but the orchestra does work in a few period instruments, including a theorbo, which looks something like a lute crossed with a bazooka.
These liberties are entirely appropriate, given that Handel and librettist Nicola Francesco Haym weren’t particularly historically informed themselves in their imagining of Julius Caesar’s love affair with Cleopatra (Caesar is young and dashing rather than 54 and married; Cleopatra’s brother/husband/rival to the throne, Ptolemy, dies in a revenge-murder rather than drowning in the Nile). Giulio Cesare’s arias are mindlessly repetitive, as if presuming their audience is too dumb to get it the first time around—so you’re not missing much, since Giulio Cesare’s arias are mindlessly repetitive, as if presuming their audience is too dumb to get it the first time around.
The singing is beautiful and jarring, thanks to those two countertenors, John Holiday as Cesare/Caesar and Eric Jurenas as Tolomeo/Ptolemy, who are so good you’ll be amazed they still have their balls. The jarring part comes the first moment Holiday, a burly, bearded man, swaggers on stage dressed in an admiral’s uniform, opens his mouth, and a sweet falsetto several miles north of Pharrell pours out. It continues as he proceeds to seduce Cleopatra in that same falsetto, their registers largely overlapping in duets. If that sounds more weird than sexy, it doesn’t hurt that soprano Ying Fang, as Cleopatra, is super hot, and spends a good deal of the opera slinking around in lingerie, which some may find gratuitous but this reviewer also found entirely appropriate.
That Fang briefly falls out of time during her big Act 3 aria (Piangerò la sorte mia), or Holiday misses the odd high note once or twice, doesn’t detract from the overall excellent quality of singing. And the vocal talent is present throughout a well-balanced cast: Renée Rapier (Cornelia) stands out especially, conveying a sympathetic, quiet desperation that contrasts well with fellow mezzo Carolyn Sproule’s vengeful Sesto. Costuming is straight prep, complete with bow ties, pearls, and madras jackets with shorts, which look totally bizarre against the backdrop of pyramids and sand, as if Brooks Brothers decided to do an ancient-Egypt theme for its 2014 summer catalog.
Antony Walker conducts Wolf Trap’s quasi-period orchestra, which on Friday kicked off an abrupt overture with squeaky violins but got better as the night wore on. Handel’s opera is a rich one; the themes and movements track Cleopatra’s evolution from schemer to lovefool to prisoner to triumphant queen—all handled with aplomb by Fang—in a way that infuses more drama than one might expect into the otherwise mechanical conventions of its era. There’s palace intrigue, lust, and a good amount of violence—even a beheading. If the beheading happens offstage, and there’s a lot more singing about fighting than actual fighting, well, you can only sex up Baroque opera so much.
The production continues Sunday, June 29 at 3 p.m. and Tuesday, July 1 at 7:30 p.m. at The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna, VA. $36 – $88. In Italian with English surtitles.