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Music Pages

Giulio Cesare at Wolf Trap Opera

30 June 2014, Virginia, US

Dazzling stars: Ying Fang as Cleopatra with John Holiday as Giulio Cesare
Dazzling stars: Ying Fang as Cleopatra with John Holiday as Giulio Cesare(Photo: Teddy Wolff)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

It is common today for opera companies and festivals, especially the smaller ones, to update Baroque opera both for financial reasons (it is cheaper to buy contemporary clothes than to make the elaborate costumes dictated by the story) and for relevance to today’s audiences (it is easier to relate to the characters’ continuously changing circumstances and emotional states, when they look, behave, and dress like we do). With themes of power, ambition, treachery, lust, love, cruelty and murder Giulio Cesare can be just as relevant today and when Handel composed it in 1724.

Unfolding against the background of an endless sandy desert punctuated by a few pyramids and sphinxes, with various props -couch, liquor bar, bed, huge silver and gold globes - appearing and disappearing for location changes, the opera possessed a veneer of ancient Egyptian symbolism that coloured the modern set and activities.

As I wrote in my review of Galileo, Galilei (Opera Now, October 2013), the most amazing voice (again) belonged to countertenor John Holiday, whose high sweet sound is probably as close to a pure 'castrati' voice as one can hear today. Assaying the title role, and outfitted in a shimmering white Navy uniform, he was not only victorious at the Battle of Pharsalia but also conquered the Wolf Trap stage. Kim Witman, the company's young artist programme director, told me that some vocal lines were bumped up to accommodate his high range and crisp, spotless coloratura. The voice of countertenor Eric Jurenas, who looked like he just stepped off a cruise ship in a white linen suit and tropical-print shirt as the sleazy, tyrant Tolomeo, paled in comparison, although his execution was certainly satisfactory. The other standout was Ying Fang, who dazzled both with her voice, and allure as Cleopatra.

Although the opera was cut from four to a bit more than three hours, it still seemed long, despite the clever and amusing touches director Chas Rader-Shieber sprinkled throughout the work. And the small pit, which required instruments to be placed in the auditorium, appeared to somewhat dampen the spirited conducting of Antony Walker.

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