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The Atlanta Opera | Handel: Giulio Cesare | 11/6-14/21

13 Nov

Welcome back, stranger!

Last weekend, the Atlanta Opera made its much-anticipated return to mainstage productions at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and opened its 2021-22 season with a first for the city: Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Aside from a selection of Handel and Hasse arias featured at a Spring Gala Concert back in 2007, and a full staging of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in 2009, the Atlanta Opera has rarely been known to champion early music, thus the prospect of such premiere proved enticing enough to force many (including myself) out of their pandemic accommodations of choice. What follows is an assessment of the performance which took place on Tuesday, November 9th.

But before we go there, I have an announcement!

As all of you know, the world has changed drastically since my last post, thus going forward (note the optimistic yet tentative tone) in addition to providing musical and production value assessments, these reviews will also contain relevant information pertaining to the topic of “going to the opera in the middle of a pandemic”. Now, I realize that this information will attract some and perhaps repel many, and since we try not to play politics on this page, both sections will be kept separate to allow the reader the ability to pick and choose what best serves them. We believe in choice. 

Cesare arrives at the court of Tolomeo
(Left to right) David Crawford (Achilla), Daryl Freedman (Cesare), Daniel Moody (Tolomeo). Photography by Ken Howard.

-ABOUT THE SHOW

Let’s level here: Staging a baroque opera is always a gamble. There’s a slew of musicologists and early music purists to appease, as well as contending with the conditions of the performance venue and the available talent. If the score was written with a star castrato in mind, that will open the door to a slew of new issues which will undoubtedly lead to compromises many will deem unsatisfactory. Though I promised myself that I would not get caught up in the castrato tangent, I would be remiss if I did not at least make a brief mention of it.

Since opera singers are often compared to Olympic athletes in disguise, it would not be a big leap to equate what that the castrato was to opera with what Michael Phelps is to swimming.  All descriptions of the star castrato go beyond the casual hyperbole and describe an alien voice, endowed with superhuman physical and sonic possibilities. To the German Handel trying to establish himself as a permanent fixture in the London music scene, the future of his operatic venture at the King’s Theater was directly tied with the success of his star castrato Senesino, and the score was tailored to exploit the divo’s extraordinary gifts to decimate the listener. It is indeed no accident that the hero’s entrance encouraged the audience, and really the whole of London, to immediately underwrite the exuberant castrato’s (and Handel’s) fresh conquest over the city. We are told there was no resistance.

In modern times, the obvious hurdle opera companies staging a production of Giulio Cesare encounter revolves around casting, since this type of voice is not only extinct as resource, but also in reference (the recordings of the last Vatican castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, offer little insight). All have gotten around the issue by way of transposition and reassigning the title role to basses, bass-baritones, mezzo-sopranos, contraltos, falsettists, etc. Cleopatra, Sesto and Tolomeo have also been subjected to the occasional fach swap, while most agree that Cornelia should be tackled by either mezzo-soprano or contralto.  I am certain that Placido Domingo will complicate matters further by adding his ambition into the mix one of these days.

For this run, the casting choices were appropriately made with the dimensions of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in mind. The integrity of the score, however, was heavily affected. While it is true that the reprise sections of the da capo arias were performed more or less complete and the performance did run a little over two and a half hours, sizable cuts were made that went far beyond the omission of obscure numbers. If you were tempted out of self-imposed lockdown to hear “Non si vago e bello” – “Venera bella” – “Tutto puo donna vezzosa” – “Tu la mia stelle sei” (!) among several others, I am afraid you would have been disappointed.  Called upon to navigate through these compromises, conductor Gary Thor Wedow’s energetic baton led a memorable reading of the edited score. This is the maestro’s debut appearance with the Atlanta Opera, and he drew a shapely musical line from the pit all the while enforcing a fast tempo, at times to the detriment of his cast. I say this to state an outcome rather than to lay blame. A lot of opera is “doing” and “testing out in the flesh”. You cannot stir different ingredients in the same way and expect the same outcome; and balancing all the elements that can make a performance magical is in itself a fragile thing. With the added element that is the bizarre reality we’re all faced with today, it is fascinating to imagine all the adjustments that led to the performances in this run. I am thankful that they turned out as well as they have and hope we see maestro Wedow back under more agreeable conditions.

The same could be said for mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman, who’s valiant reading of the tremendous title role has made her an artist to look out for in future cast lists. As we imagine was the case with Senesino, Ms. Freedman put the audience on notice right away, and set a tone that would permeate her work during the long evening from her very entrance. For her introductory number “Presti omai,” she unleashed a string of large bronze-colored tones, and offered a voice richly distributed through the registers which bottomed out into a cavernous chest resonance. As the evening progressed, some caveats revealed themselves: The scale is not fully equalized, the gritty timbre which could turn coarse, and a true shake is not within her arsenal. But the virtues outweighed these, and to this ear she was convincing in both the allegro and the adagio. It is a big, responsive voice, heard most memorably in the panoramic “Dall’ondoso periglio” which featured a well-controlled messa di voce on G sharp. To assess her propensity in florid singing, there’s perhaps no better indicator than the bravura sequence “Al lampo dell’armi,” the baroque forerunner of later iconic battle cries such as “Di quella pira” and “Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance”. It showed many facets of Ms. Freedman’s art such as her efforts to execute the most heavily ornamented phrase in full voice, and her willingness to borrow from the romantic stylistic handbook: She capped the phrasing by raising the chest up the scale to imbue her singing with a masculine swagger.

Cleopatra eavesdrops the grieving Cornelia
(Left to right) Renee Tatum as Cornelia, Jasmine Habersham as Cleopatra and Elizabeth Sarian as Nireno. Photography by Ken Howard.

In the more congenial role of Cornelia, mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum also scored a triumphant debut with the Atlanta Opera in these performances. In contrast to Ms. Harbersham, her instrument offered a greater evenness of scale and firmness of tone throughout the range, qualities which flattered the role’s less encyclopedic demands. The opening aria, “Priva son d’ogni conforto” revealed a large, well-rounded mezzo ideally suited to fill the phrases of sustained melodies. It also blended well with the mezzo-soprano of Megan Marino, who’s bratty Sesto joined her in the famous duet “Son nata a lagrimar” which was enthusiastically received.  Ms. Marino, an Atlanta Opera favorite whose voice appears unaffected by the unscheduled hiatus, has maintained that youthfully alert and vibrant tone that won her acclaim as Olga two seasons ago and used it to her full advantage in these performances as Sesto. If anything, the manner with which she rendered her instrument pliant throughout the disparate demands of the role (Sesto’s vocalism lies somewhere between Cornelia and Cesare…plot twist?) was a pleasant surprise, implying that other members of the Sesto family may be within her grasp.

Thoughts on the virtues of the night’s leading lady, soprano Jasmine Habersham, are less straight forward. Her Cleopatra is piquant and youthful in the first act, but the many cuts in the score robbed her of critical exposition to develop the Junoesque character of the second. Then there’s the voice, a shade lighter than the rest of the cast, which required some time to settle. The scale is uneven, with the notes in the middle register playing constant catch up with the higher ones in terms of sonority and production. Whether by stylistic choice or natural endowment, her declamation in the first act was devoid of a consistent tremolo, giving her recitatives a hooty intonation. This bled into her first test, the ornate “Non disperar,” which did not flatter her efforts, save to display steadier reserves in the higher tessitura. Up high, she could wrestle a voice of greater impact altogether, but which could also become shrill if not handled carefully. One possible culprit was the fast tempi dictated from the pit, and the two sustained melodies which would crown her participation in the second act, “Se pieta di me non senti” and “Piangero la sorte mia” confirmed this suspicion. These indicated that when Ms. Habersham, who’s singing had by now acquired a more reasonable vibration, was permitted to unveil her instrument at a more leisurely pace, the differences in her scale could blur over the long phrases of her laments. As this newfound evenness soared through the auditorium in conditions more suitable to her talent, she managed to both produce the one true trill to be heard all night, as well as inspire the warmest reception from her listeners.  

Few modern mountings of Giulio Cesare would be complete without the participation of the inescapable countertenor, and in his Atlanta Opera debut as Tolomeo, Daniel Moody represented his fach admirably. Often restricted by the size of their instrument and a niche repertoire, the countertenor life can often be marred by limited artistic opportunities. Mr. Moody carefully produced voice, however,  did not call out these frequent concerns. Moreover, he relished his interpretation by raising the larynx and indulging in flashes of straight tone to project a variety of effects, providing a window into another realm of acoustic possibilities within the context of a Handelian score. His iconic Dragula-inspired death scene gave me life. On the opposite end of the spectrum, bass-baritone David Crawford as Achilla offered the chocolatey palate cleanser needed to offset this evening of heavy-handed extravaganza of high voices. His efforts were supported by the occasional participation of the promising bass William Meinert as Curio, a Studio Artist who was joined by one of its alumni, Elizabeth Sarian in the part of Nireno. 

"I will haunt the tyrant, night and day, once I'm dead!"
Jasmine Habersham (Cleopatra). Photography by Ken Howard.

This presentation of Handel’s Giulio Cesare was produced in collaboration with Israeli Opera, and directed by Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. General & Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, and his vision is realized by a large team. The sets, comprised primarily of a multitasking rotating pyramid designed by Alexander Lisiyansky, cleverly establish the setting for the proceedings to play out. The use of projections (designed by Erin Teachman) served best when restricted to background duty, but became an iffier affair when featured in the foreground to illustrate the grotesque (a similar treatment was seen in Mr. Zvulun’s handling of Jokanaan decapitation in the company’s recent Salome production, though that experiment proved altogether more effective). Lively dance sequences choreographed by Donald Byrd graced the various sinfonias that separate the main scenes of the opera, and costumes by Mattie Ullrich sparked some debate during intermission. As to my personal take on the production, I am reminded that our knowledge of performance practice in Handel’s day indicate that opera productions were extremely self-aware and hyper focused on the star singer. And yet, Handel found a way to sneak his artistic voice, such as the scene where the defeated Cesare muses over his uncertain fate “Dall’ondoso periglio.” The sentiment of the vocal line juxtaposed against the casual ebb and flow of nature depicted in the orchestra provides a universal and terrifying reflection of our mortality: All is lost and the end is near/yet the breeze has not stopped, the waves have not ceased. Mr. Zvulun and his team could have “assisted” this seemingly passive moment with stage distractions galore. Instead, they let Handel happen, and in the process earned our resounding support.

There is one more performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare remaining in this run. To find out how to attend, or if you would like to explore the rest of the Atlanta Opera’s season, and its please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org

-FOR THE NERVOUS

First: Full disclosure. I am not a doctor but just a person who takes the pandemic seriously, and aware that we are still very much in the middle of a health crisis. Prior to the availability of vaccinations, I did not venture outside of the house except to check the mailbox (with gloves) and remembering the lessons from our fear based 90s sex education (of which I am most grateful for) I was resigned to remain in voluntary lockdown until the world’s smart people came up with an impactful solution. With the advent of the vaccine (and the inexplicable polarization around it) I am slightly more willing to leave the security of my bubble, but under specific circumstances.

Opera is the alchemy of voice traveling through the air and filling a space. Suddenly, that was now possibly lethal. Thus, my decision to attend the performance was preceded by a lot of internal debate and exchanges with The Atlanta Opera regarding their infection mitigation policies, as well as the choices I could make to ensure a safe and enjoyable evening for myself and others.

For starters, the current low infection figures in our state, and the looming holiday season which promises to trigger a fresh new wave of cases in the horizon, put me on notice that if I was going to attend an opera performance, this would probably be the safest. The Atlanta Opera also has a vaccination and/or negative test requirement prior to enter the hall, and inside the auditorium, masks (over and face and nose) are required in the auditorium, and the venue has been enhanced with MERV-13 filters. The company does an excellent job at calling AND emailing patrons prior to the night of a performance to remind them of these policies. I am happy to report that on the night of the performance, the great majority of patrons kept their masks on, at least while the lights were on.

In my talks with the company, the date of the performance and the seating section became topics to explore. Press passes are customarily issued for opening night performances, but we opted to have me review the second performance because it took place on a Tuesday night which traditionally undersells. We also looked for underperforming sections in the auditorium and decided to test a seat in the second tier.

Aside from the policies embraced by the company, there are things you can do to enjoy a great evening in the theater and remain safe. If possible, avoid the bathrooms while they’re crowded. If you must remove your mask during intermission, there’s access outdoors on the ground floor where this can be done under safer conditions. Choose a seat by an exit so you can the first to leave if necessary, and if your area becomes crowded or rowdy (or both), spot a pocket of empty seats if available and quietly relocate (apologize to the usher afterwards).

While these considerations contributed greatly in my ability to relax and focus on the music, make no mistake: I am not trying in any way to convince those who are not ready to come back out. That is a personal choice based on real concerns. I took a chance and I weighed all of the factors listed above to feel ok about my decision based on my personal risk and reward scale. But this does not have to be you if you’re not ready. Take your time and remember that your safety and the safety of others comes first. Continue to do your part and we may say goodbye to this nightmare sooner than later. Next week, I will get tested and update this page with the results for those interested. If you would like to dig further into the company’s safety guidelines, you can access them at Safety – The Atlanta Opera

-Daniel Vasquez

 
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