From the December 2021 Issue of Opera News Online

Giulio Cesare

Atlanta Opera 11/6/21

IN THE FORTY YEARS since the Atlanta Opera’s inception, there has never been a Handel opera displayed on the theatre marquee. In fact, the last production of an opera predating Mozart was more than a decade ago, when David Daniels starred in AO’s production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Taking a risk now, artistic and general director Tomer Zvulun opened AO’s 2021-22 season with an Israeli Opera co-production of Julius Caesar that he had directed in historic Akko prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. November 6 marked the company’s long-awaited return to a theatre that has been dark for almost two years.

Set amidst a post-apocalyptic world—inspired by Game of Thrones and Mad Max and dreamed up by scenic designer Alexander Lisiyansky and costume designer Mattie Ullrich—the characters moved about a glass pyramid that encompassed a regal staircase and giant stone discs that looked prehistoric. The Romans and Egyptians were easily discernible, retaining stereotypical aspects of clothing such as helmets and headdresses, but looked more primitive with pieces of skull affixed to their attire. Egypt was further enhanced by looming projections by Erin Teachman that added an otherworldliness.

Conductor and early music specialist Gary Thor Wedow and Zvulun trimmed the score down to a tidy collection of recitatives and hit arias, (omitting the chorus). The cast was headed by emerging singers making their role debuts. It was an evening to luxuriate in the diversity of the mezzo-soprano sound. The opera got off to an auspicious start with Daryl Freedman’s rendition of Caesar’s “Presti omai l’Egizia terra,” her singular instrument impressively agile. Renée Tatum summoned all attention with Cornelia’s initial aria, “Priva son d’ogni conforto” and mesmerized throughout the night with her splendid singing. Her duets with Sesto, sung by Megan Marino, were stunning, the pulsations of their vibrato synchronized. Marino, one of the more seasoned members of the cast, shone brightly demonstrating consummate understanding of Baroque style. 

Soprano Jasmine Habersham, a local favorite and capable soprano, made an elegant impression with her lightly ornamented delivery of Cleopatra’s “V’adoro pupille” at the close of Act I, singing from the pinnacle of the pyramid, while a dozen scantily dressed dancers paired up in erotic unions below. The onstage orchestra was missed, but Wedow’s band in the pit, which included harp and viola de gamba (Susan Brady and Jacob Bitinas), played beautifully underscoring choreographer Donald Byrd’s provocative representation of Cleopatra’s seduction.

Countertenor Daniel Moody played the role of Tolomeo with puerile antics; the blooming purity of his sound was almost too lovely for his despicable character. David Crawford’s robust bass-baritone was perfectly suited to his role of Achilla, the villain who sliced off Pompey’s head.

Regrettably, on opening night the alchemy of Act I dissipated post-intermission. The balletic choreography seen in Act I morphed into a more contemporary, dance-party style and the neophytes in the cast had difficulty maintaining the requisite stamina to carry the rest of the opera, leaving the arias feeling contrived and flat. At the end of the day, Caesar’s famous words, “veni, vidi, vici” may not apply to this particular production of Julius Caesar. Rather, the Atlanta Opera may have to reassess its strategy before winning its patrons over to Baroque opera. —Stephanie Adrian

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