Consider Summerfest's 'Caesar' a conquering hero

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
July 17, 2016
Mark Kanny

"Chatham Baroque provided the core of the orchestra, and was supplemented by young string and wind players who have become expert in baroque style through study at Carnegie Mellon. The instrumental ensemble was world class, including Morales' harpsichord improvisations."

 

Cheering broke out repeatedly during and at the end of Summerfest's presentation of “Julius Caesar” on July 15, the first of three performances of George Frideric Handel's operatic masterpiece. Spectacular singing and smart modern staging, which provided much unexpected fun, were combined with dramatically astute orchestral contributions for nearly total success.

Julius Caesar enjoyed many, many triumphs during his career as a Roman general and emperor before his assassination on the Ides of March, 48 B.C., outside the Senate, which was the subject of William Shakespeare's play.

The action of Handel's “Giulio Cesare in Egito” (Julius Caesar in Egypt) takes place four years earlier, after Caesar has defeated his rival Pompey and goes to Egypt, where Pompey has sought refuge, to negotiate a truce. The opera begins on Caesar's arrived, when, to his disgust, he's presented with Pompey's decapitated head given in tribute by King Ptolemy. Handel, like many playwrights and filmmakers after him, was drawn to the love affair that developed between Caesar and Ptolemy's sister, Cleopatra.

Handel's opera is long, nearly Wagnerian in length, and was presented in a streamlined production. Stage director Dan Rigazzi, a Carnegie Mellon grad who has been on the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for nine years, was shrewd in his cuts. Summerfest took two English productions of the opera as its starting point — director David McVicar's Glyndebourne Festival interpretation and the English National Opera's 1984 production for the English translation.

The cast was uncommonly strong, starting with the amazing singing of countertenor Andrey Nemzer in the title role. He was performing it for the first time, although he covered the role at the Metropolitan Opera. Nemzer is blessed with an uncommonly juicy voice that has remarkable power, flexibility, range and accuracy. These qualities were fully on display in his aria early in Act 1, “Tyrant avoid my sight,” which expresses his reaction to Ptolemy's barbaric tribute. The singer's articulation was stunning at rapid tempi. Nemzer also was thoroughly winning in the completely contrasting aria “Fleet o'er flowery meadows,” in which bucolic metaphors express Caesar's growing love for Cleopatra. He was joined onstage by Chatham Baroque's violinist Andrew Fouts for inspired interaction that brought the audience to its feet for the end of Summerfest's Act 1.

Soprano Lara Lynn McGill made Cleopatra come alive with beautiful singing after her first aria. Her timbre is warm and appealing, and showed considerable agility in coping with Handel's sometimes florid style. Moreover, McGill's glamorous appearance made Caesar's infatuation with her entirely plausible.

Rigazzi sees Cleopatra as providing comic relief from Caesar's conflict with her brother. He presents her with the sensibility of a New Jersey princess attended to by a pair of Kardashians.

The remainder of the cast was very impressive, too, with one exception.

Mezzo-soprano Sara Beth Shelton was magnificent as Cornelia, Pompey's widow, employing her velvety voice with equal success to portray her suffering and her strength in rejecting Ptolemy's romantic advances. Soprano Katherine Beck was a powerhouse as her son, Sextus, seeking and getting vengeance.

Countertenor Min Sang Kim as Ptolemy was the least successful member of the cast both dramatically and vocally. But baritone James Eder as his general, Achillas, used his rich and powerful voice with true artistry. J. Patrick McGill as Caesar's general, Curio, and Zachary Wood as the servant Nirenus were both excellent.

Walter Morales, who prepared the performance materials, proved again to be a brilliant opera conductor. His pacing was by turns dynamic and lyrically sensitive. He achieved the rare combination of being attentive and flexible to the singers' needs and also holding the entire performance tightly together.

Chatham Baroque provided the core of the orchestra, and was supplemented by young string and wind players who have become expert in baroque style through study at Carnegie Mellon. The instrumental ensemble was world class, including Morales' harpsichord improvisations.

The performance took place at Summerfest's new home at the Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside. It's a big improvement over The Twentieth Century Club in Oakland, where the company has been performing in recent years. Falk Auditorium's lighting equipment and stage are far superior. So, too, are the acoustics, including wonderfully telling bass presence which provides the right basis for orchestral sound. The seating is more comfortable, too.

Summerfest's production of “Julius Caesar” will be repeated at 2 p.m. July 17 and 7:30 p.m. July 23 at Winchester Thurston School, 555 Morewood Ave., Shadyside. Admission is $25 to $75. Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.