The following day another Thomas protégé, the rising countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, headlined the West Edge Opera (WEO)’s 2022 Festival production of Handel’s arguably greatest (and certainly my most favorite) opera, Giulio Cesare in Egitto. After forced by Covid regulations to perform outdoors at Bruns Amphitheater (home of Cal Shakes) last year, this year West Edge Opera went back indoors and secured the beautiful Scottish Rite Center in Oakland, opening with Giulio Cesare on July 23. The performance seen on July 32 was the second of the three.
Giulio Cesare is the fourth Handel pieces performed by WEO, following Acis and Galatea (2004), Serse (2011) and Agrippina (2016). During the pre-performance talk, WEO General Director (and director for this production) Mark Streshinsky mentioned that the aims for WEO Summer Festival are to perform one opera before Mozart’s time, one contemporary opera and one opera from recent times!
For the uninitiated, Handel’s opera, with libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, doesn’t deal with William Shakespeare’s famous play, but instead it chronicles Cesare’s amorous adventure in Egypt (hence the title), where he pursues his enemy Pompeo to Egypt, only to fall in love to Cleopatra and almost being killed by his brother, Tolomeo, the boy king of Egypt. The work has been touted by many as being Handel’s finest, and as musicologist Paul Henry Lang said, “It is admired for its superb vocal writing, its dramatic impact, and its deft orchestral arrangements.”
Handel’s score was heavily abridged for this production, in order to cut the performance time from 4.5 to slightly less than 3 hours. Streshinky mentioned that some of the “meh” arias were cut out, but personally I thought that it went beyond than just omissions of such arias, as others even lost their “B” and “A*” sections (out of the A-B-A* form), most noticeably on Cleopatra’s aria di bravura “Da tempeste!”
This has always been my pet peeve. While I’m personally fine with omissions of arias, “mutilating” A-B-A* form should never be done! I regard the full form of “Da tempeste” (as shown in the video below) as equally beautiful and complete as, say, Wagner’s “Liebestod.” Since nobody in the right mind would cut short “Liebestod.” please don’t do that to my beloved Handel!
The curtailment was more noticeable in Act 2 and particularly Act 3, where it was so close for being merely just excerpts. For someone that was super familiar with the opera, it did present some holes in the dramaturgy, as you would expect some scenes to follow a particular scene, and yet it moved to the next one!
Nevertheless, I felt that the whole performance last Sunday was greater the sum of its parts, particularly due to the dedication of the whole cast and crew amidst all adversities. During the pre-performance talk Streshinky was apologetic about the costumes jumbled between Roman period and modern dresses, as the costume designer Ron S. McCan was down with Covid before opening night! I didn’t mind the varied nature of the costumes at all; in fact it reminded me of the caricature below (often attributed to Giulio Cesare, but most probably from Flavio), where the castrati wore military Roman attires, and the soprano was in a contemporary gown!
Strenshinky decidedly took a slapstick approach in his interpretation, with a lot of “hanky-panky” similar to his direction for Eliogabalo last year. While in itself it was a valid reading, inevitably it marred some of the tender moments from the opera. Case in point was Cornelia’s lament “Deh piangete” from Act 2, where it was done while she cut grass in Tolomeo’s garden, drawing laughter from the audience instead!
However, his pièce de resistance, the LED “butterflies” dancing (courtesy of choreographer Marcos Vedoveto) around Cesare and Cleopatra’s making love during “V’adoro, pupille” right before intermission was truly worth the price of admission!
Streshinky mentioned that he chose the location based on its great acoustics for unamplified voices; however I beg to differ, at least from where I sat at Section 3. The vast hall of the Scottish Rite reminded me a lot of the high-ceiling churches in Germany, where the voices come with a noticeable echo. Considering that the singers kept moving, it created problems especially with the projection of some of the singers’ voices. It affected some singers more than others, though.
In the title role, Cohen truly came into his own, compared to the last time I saw him. He perfectly personified young Caesar, a bit naïve and playful, and his voice had grown warmer and almost velvety. He had some problems with the fast passages of “Empio, dirò, tu sei” but otherwise he excelled. “Va tacito” was particularly memorable (although the horn obbligato had some flubs.)
As Cleopatra, Shawnette Sulker had the right temperament and voice as the sassy Egyptian Queen, however I thought she was the one suffered the most from the location. To my ears, she had slight wobble on her top notes, and somehow it was amplified by the hall. It was particularly noticeable on the slow arias, especially on “Piangerò la sorte mia” that she performed full A-B-A*. I still wish she performed the full “Da tempeste” instead!
Veteran Katherine Pracht sang Cornelia expressively, and Coit—unlike the previous day—let loose in the trouser role Sesto, dazzled with rapid-fire precision in Sesto’s rage arias. Michael Parham, Glenn Healy and Jasmine Johnson competently completed the comprimario roles of Achilla, Curio and Nirena respectively (I was surprised Achilla pretty much retained his arias). Countertenor Cenk Karaferya was underwhelming in his take on the villain Tolomeo, despite looking appropriately nasty in the role!
Conductor Christine Brandes drew a good rapport with the orchestra, she led them in a leisurely paced reading. She was sensitive to the singers as well, and she wouldn’t hesitate to slow down to accommodate them. As WEO cut all the Choruses, there was no Chorus in sight; in its place we got seven dancers who mostly acted as Cleopatra and Tolomeo’s entourages. They contributed to a beautiful dance during the final duet “Caro! Bella!”
All in all, while it wasn’t perfect, it was still a very enjoyable show thanks to everybody involved. The audience was truly appreciative that evening, and it really warmed my heart! What an amazing Handel weekend to be had, and I’m hoping for more such weekend around here in the future!