11 June 2011

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011: ‘Julius Caesar’

Ava Pine as Cleopatra
Original illustration by WVM©

NOTE: More original illustrations will be posted soon!
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Fort Worth Opera had never before produced a Baroque opera, I’m told, prior to this season’s Julius Caesar, but on the strength of this production, I’m eager to see the company try again, and often. This repertory plays to many of Fort Worth’s strengths, not least because we are blessed to live in an age when so many young American artists combine the training and talent needed to make this music come alive. Moreover, Fort Worth’s Bass Hall isn’t a barn like the Met in New York: the proportions are closer to what Handel and his contemporaries anticipated, and thus the orchestra and voices don’t get lost.

And the choice of Julius Caesar was smart, too. When Julius Rudel brought this piece to New York City Opera, 45 years ago (on the self-same set), Handel’s stage works were all but unknown in the United States, but today Caesar is very nearly a repertory staple; though NYCO prided itself on eschewing the star system, its Caesar nevertheless made stars of its leads, Beverly Sills (as Cleopatra) and Norman Treigle (as Caesar). In like fashion, Fort Worth Opera isn’t fixated on stars, and probably can’t afford to be. Yet this Caesar shone a brilliant spotlight on the Cleopatra of soprano Ava Pine — who’s scheduled to return next season in Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata and who seems poised to become the company’s de facto prima donna, whether anyone intends it or not.

As I watched on June 5, Fort Worth’s Julius Caesar signaled to me that this company really has grown up. That’s a paradoxical thing to say about what is, after all, the oldest continuously performing opera company in the state, but Fort Worth Opera really seems now what it never was before: a full-fledged player in the big leagues. Julius Caesar was more than an auspicious entry into new (albeit very old) rep, it was a fresh confirmation of how much Darren Woods has achieved over the past ten years.

The look of the show — nimbly staged by David Gately — gained in glamour thanks to Robert Perdziola’s gorgeous costumes and Chad R. Jung’s ingenious lighting: when the background lighting matches Cornelia’s burgundy-colored gown, you know you’re in sure hands. And there was something almost unbelievably poignant about that set, designed by Ming Cho Lee for NYCO in 1966. All those legendary photographs of Sills and Treigle in this opera? They’re standing on this very set. Sills sang often with Fort Worth, and to one who learned opera through her, and who first heard Cleopatra’s music in her voice, it seemed almost as if she gave this production her blessing.

Can this relationship be saved?
Achillas (Singletary) and Cornelia (Arwady)
Original illustration by WVM©

The role of Caesar was written for castrato, and while those guys are mercifully rare in the modern era, there are nevertheless a few ways to cast it: Fort Worth’s ensemble actually could have fielded several Caesars. Meredith Arwady’s opulent contralto voice suggested that she, like the great Ewa Podles´, could play either Caesar or (as she did here) Cornelia. Michael Maniaci is (to be exact about it) not a countertenor but a male soprano; the suppleness of his singing in high registers is arresting and could surely be tailored to Caesar’s heroic stature — though here he sang the role of Sextus, a teenage boy. Together, Arwady and Maniaci made the mother-and-son duet “Son nata a lagrimar” (I was born to weep) absolutely spell-binding, one of those moments in Baroque opera when you really don’t want the song to end, and the A-B-A structure seems insufficient. A-B-A-A-B-A-B-B-A-A, anyone?

It fell to countertenor Randall Scotting to incarnate Caesar, and especially as an actor he got much right. Tall and good-looking, he was unusually credible in the romantic-comedy scenes that make up so much of this opera; he didn’t quite manage the demeanor of Caesar as wily military leader, but at least he was dashing. However, in an era when the United States alone boasts a number of excellent countertenors with big, burnished voices, Scotting’s sound seemed a shade thin for this role.

Up-and-coming bass-baritone Donovan Singletary might have sung a Caesar in the Treigle mold — though early-music purists would have protested. As the Egyptian commander Achillas, Singletary had plenty of power and disarming sexiness, but the florid musical line exceeded the scope of his technique, and his performance really left me eager to hear him in Verdi, for example.

The role of Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother, husband, and rival, lends itself to some of the most exaggerated dramatic interpretation one is likely to see in American opera houses; compared with others I’ve seen, José Álvarez’s performance was actually fairly restrained, albeit still too broad for my taste.* Álvarez followed Gately’s direction to the letter and let it inform his singing, too, yet he found one aria in which he sang sweetly enough to remind us that, while this Ptolemy may be one-dimensional, this singer is not.

And what of Ava Pine? From the minute I heard she’d been cast in this production, my expectations began to rise, and they rose only higher as more details were announced. (When I heard about the Ming Cho Lee sets, I nearly burst with anticipation.) Not a lot of artists could live up to those expectations, much less surpass them — but Ava did.

Her voice, creamier and richer than it has any right to be, sparkled and shimmered over the surface of the music and plumbed its depths, too, in a wonderful demonstration of the dramatic possibilities of the Baroque. Cleopatra is, far and away, the most complex character in this opera, and Ava found the nuances from aria to aria — and from note to note. Girlish and flirty at the outset, grieving later, then jubilant — and always regal, always graceful, always gorgeous. As I say, one of the pleasures of attending opera in Fort Worth has been the chance to see and hear Ava in different repertory, and by now I am her devoted, unabashed and unrepentant fan.

It was a blow that one of her arias was cut, for reasons of timing. I regretted even more the loss of “Svegliatevi nel core,” a thrilling aria for Sextus with which Michael Maniaci could have done so much, and of course the more I hear of Meredith Arwady, the greedier I get, so I hated to lose any of her numbers. Alas, even in Baroque opera, reality does sometimes intrude.**

Daniel Beckwith, an early-music specialist, conducted with real feeling and genuine respect for the theatrical values of the score. (Not every early-music specialist would.) I dare say the Fort Worth audience does know some Handel, particularly the religious stuff, and next-door Dallas Opera produced his Ariodante a few years ago — so that Beckwith’s expertise didn’t go entirely unappreciated. Yet I sensed another impulse at work: If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.

That was the sense I got from Fort Worth Opera’s productions of Of Mice and Men and Angels in America, too, from this season’s Hydrogen Jukebox and indeed from most of the work I’ve seen here, ever since a memorable Turn of the Screw in 2003. That’s why I keep coming back, and it’s why, bit by bit, across repertory that spans several centuries and not just the 19th, the Fort Worth Opera audience is becoming one of the country’s most sophisticated. When the work is this good, this audience is one of the luckiest, too.

The Finale Ultimo, with Michael Maniaci (far left), Meaghan Deiter and Lane Johnson (above, center), Ava Pine and Randall Scotting (below, center), and Meredith Arwady (far right).
Photo by Ellen Appel© Courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

*NOTE: I am absolutely confident that the role of Ptolemy can be effective when played subtly — that is, not as a flamboyant queen. But at this rate, no stage director is ever going to give me proof.

**Play the entire opera through, and you have to pay a lot of people a lot of overtime; that’s surely one reason that Rudel’s performing edition from 1966 omits so many repeats: we get a taste of all, or almost all, the arias, but very few complete.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bill, These drawings are amazing!! I had no idea such artistic talents accompanied the rhetorical and linguistic gifts which are so generously on display. Something about the incline of Ava Pine's head, the way her the line from her forehead to her jaw resembles a waxing moon, Mercury's wreath in her hair, Zeus' lightning bolts encircling her bodice and charging down her skirt. Who is she warding off with those delicate hands? What lucky being has caught her gaze?

Thanks for sharing. I hope there are more to come!!