The clouds part, and fog rolls in, bringing with it a strolling chamber orchestra. Behind the clouds sits an art deco pyramid, striped in black and white. Stepping out of some Astaire-Rogers picture, chorus boys dressed in evening wear with top hats tap the front of the pyramid with the heads of their canes. The triangle breaks apart, leaving a bevy of beauteous chorines holding the pieces. They lightly step out of the way. There -- in a star turn worthy of any queen of the silver screen -- stands the resplendent Cleopatra.
With blond marcelled hair, bangle bracelets and a cape trimmed in marabou, Laura Claycomb's glamorous queen of the Nile is poured into a chevron-striped black-and-white gown that 1930s designers Travis Banton and Adrian would have clawed each other's eyes out to have created. Behind her, marquee lights send off shooting stars, and confetti cascades over the stunning stage design. Caesar, for whom this extravaganza of seduction has been planned, falls over in a giddy swoon. He's been hooked.
So have we. Houston Grand Opera's new production of Handel's 1724 baroque masterpiece, Julius Caesar, is a knockout, one of its finest achievements. Since it's set in Hollywood's golden age, we don't mind borrowing a studio publicity agent's ringing endorsement: It's a doozy!
Baroque opera -- or "opera seria" -- can be pretty rough-going for both the opera novice and the aficionado. But Handel makes the going smooth indeed with his unfaltering genius. His melodies are dramatically apt, precise and easy on the ear. Even with meager baroque orchestration, he can still whip up a Wagnerian climax or melt your heart with a one-sentence aria. Under the musical direction of Patrick Summers, "the glorious Saxon" is in loving hands. The orchestra plays like silk.
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HGO's Hollywood-homage treatment works, making three hours fly by and infusing Handel with new life. When was the last time you smiled in gratitude during a performance because everything fell into place? The crack production team of James Robinson (director), Christine Jones (sets), James Schuette (costumes) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting) is welcome back anytime.
Of course, you can't be baroque without curlicues and fiendish ornamentation in the singing. HGO has cast this opera with the best of contemporary singers. This may be the closest we're likely to get to what Handel actually heard -- or heard in his imagination.
Opera seria was the province of the castrati. These surgically altered young males, the pop divas and celebrities of 18th-century Europe, retained their preadolescent soprano voices, but with an adult's lung power. Along with Handel's rococo spectacles, they soon fell out of favor; John Gay and his Beggar's Opera savagely mocked both just four years after Julius Caesar's premiere. The trend these days toward authenticity in performance has brought forth the countertenor, the nonsurgical male alto or soprano.
David Daniels, the foremost interpreter of this resurrected repertoire, makes his HGO debut as Caesar. Now we know what all the international shouting's been about. Robust and agile, his high-flying tenor has a dark shading that gives it variety and sheen, along with power and heft. At times he sounds like mezzo Marilyn Horne, which is not a bad thing at all. Daniels sails through Handel's embellishments with ease and commands the stage, even after shipwrecked and delivering "Dall'ondoso periglio" lying prostrate. He also cuts quite a dapper figure in his tailed tux, chasing after Cleopatra.
And who wouldn't chase after Claycomb's Cleopatra? After her dazzling 2001 HGO Rigoletto debut and her equally impressive turn in Lucia last season, she breezes through her demanding fioritura without flaw and outdoes herself as both tragedian and comedian. Claycomb is especially devastating in her legato arias; she's also hilarious when she walks like an Egyptian, jaunting off the stage with hieroglyphic semaphores. This Cleopatra clowns like Carole Lombard, looks like Jean Harlow and sings like an angel. But she could use a little more sultriness. She channels too much of Jean Hagen from Singin' in the Rain and not enough of Claudette Colbert's sex kitten from DeMille's art deco version of Cleopatra (a rare directorial misstep from Robinson).
Phyllis Pancella brings a burnished mezzo and fine dramatic instinct to the grieving and vengeful Cornelia; Patricia Risley is an eye- and ear-opener in the trouser role of Pompey's son Sextus; countertenor Brian Asawa sings oily Ptolemy with just the right amount of spite and contempt; and countertenor Matthew White as Cleopatra's confidant Nirenus supplies comic relief and a beautiful voice to his Edward Everett Horton routine.
During the musical introduction, before Cleopatra reveals herself in the "Mount Parnassus" production number, a beguiled Caesar declares, "It's music of the spheres." Thanks to Handel and the associate wizards at HGO, the whole world sings. If you're new to opera, HGO's splendid 1930s movie-musical pastiche is just the one to get you started. Accessible, theatrically clever, perfectly sung and sublimely played, Julius Caesar is everything opera should be.
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