Handel’s “Julius Caesar” is a baroque opera seria first performed in London in 1732, but there’s nothing musty or old-fashioned about Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s must-see Summerfest production that opened Friday evening in Winchester Thurston School’s Falk Auditorium. Taking a cue from (but not imitating) the much-lauded David McVicar production that was shown Live in HD from the Met in 2013, resourceful director Dan Rigazzi, who is on the Met’s staging staff, has imbued this work with modern-day relevance, vitality, humor and more than a touch of Broadway pizzazz.
This show is no stodgy antique. Italian opera seria had its conventions – action taking place in speech-like recitative, followed by lengthy da capo arias in which the characters express their feelings about what has just taken place. Moreover, in Handel’s time, castratos took on the heroic male roles, which are nowadays assigned to countertenors (male altos) or female singers. In the present English-language version, trimmed down to under three hours and rendered by mostly young performers in the intimate milieu of this comfortable, brightly refurbished 310-seat theater, Handel’s retelling of the Caesar-Cleopatra romance packs an irresistible immediacy and import.
First and foremost, however, is the musical element. Handel’s score is filled with magnificent melodies that show off (and often tax to the limits) the singers’ skills, while expressing the gamut of human feelings. The arias are difficult technically and stylistically, and Opera Theater wisely enlisted instrumentalists from this city’s superb Chatham Baroque, conducted with proficiency and sensitivity by Walter Morales. The singers were all quite good, but this production was a vehicle for Russian-born Pittsburgh resident Andrey Nemzer, who covered the title part at the Met.
Mr. Nemzer’s countertenor voice is a phenomenal instrument, filling the auditorium from thunderous soprano high notes down to unexpected baritonal lows. He has an amazing sound and extraordinary musicality. He can tone down to a melting legato line or turn up the volume for an intrepid outburst of temperament. The temperament was there from the start, in his two bellicose opening scene arias; his melting legato pervaded Caesar’s late-on appeal to the Zephyrs for consolation, at a point when Caesar believes he has been defeated. Mr. Nemzer’s a big guy, who can take over the stage, but may also be tender one instant, and flip a jaunty dance step the next. His biggest star turn was a sensational aria in which an onstage violinist transforms Caesar’s solo into a virtuoso duet, underscoring the poetic comparison of Cleopatra to a lark. Cuts were inevitable and merciful in a work of these proportions, but it’s too bad that Caesar’s great hunting aria with horn obbligato, one of the baroque’s greatest hits, had to go.
Cleopatra was Lara Lynn McGill, whose movie star glamour and personal allure combined with her honey-toned soprano to create an alluring foil to the opera’s hero. She was uncertain in her opening solo, and lacked the bravura to surmount the hurdles of her tempest aria, but warmed up to the lovely melody known in Italian as “V’adoro, pupille,” and conveyed the long-breathed lines of her last act lament with unaffected sincerity.
An emotional highlight was the heartrending duet of grief between Cornelia (luminous contralto Sara Beth Shelton) and Sextus (bright-sounding mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck) mother and son who have been unjustly imprisoned by Cleopatra’s villainous brother Ptolemy. The latter role was well taken by Korean countertenor Min Sang Kim, whose voice is smaller and less imposing than Mr. Nemzer’s, but interesting for its own distinctive color and nuance. James Eder displayed a resonant baritone along with some rough coloratura as Ptolemy’s macho sidekick, Achillas.