Last evening I attended the Washington Opera's production of Handel's
*Julius Caesar* at the Kennedy Center with Vivica Genaux, mezzo, singing
Caesar, Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano, singing Cleopatra, Catherine Keen, mezzo,
singing Cornelia (Pompey's widow), Marguerite Krull, soprano, singing
Sextus (Pompey's son), Jonathan Hays, baritone, singing Achillas (Ptolemy's
general), and Flavio Oliver, sopranist...
OK, cut! What's a sopranist? Flavio, from his picture, as well as his
name, is male. His voice sounds like a woman's. He's not a countertenor.
Is he a boy soprano?
...singing Ptolemy. Will Crutchfield conducted.
The story (actually well constructed for an opera) is not Shakespeare's,
or even Shaw's and is probably more a tale of Cleopatra than of her lover.
The story hinges on Cleopatra's rivalry with her brother, Ptolemy, for sole
possession of the Egyptian throne, which had been willed to them jointly as
co-regents. Caesar is the ally each hopes to secure against the other.
Ptolemy, through his general, Achillas, seeks to secure it by beheading
Pompey, Caesar's rival for power in Rome, not realizing that Caesar had
been inclined to spare him. Cleopatra hopes to secure Caesar's support
through her womanly wiles. To add spice to the story, Ptolemy and Achillas
both seek to win the heart of Cornelia, Pompey's widow, who on her part
appears to enjoy a suspicious state of mutual affection with her stepson,
Sextus. After much clashing of arms, spectacular escapes, etc., Ptolemy
appears to be the surviving victor, ready to humiliate Cleopatra and bend
Cornelia to his will, when the surviving Caesar, with Sextus at his side
arrives with a newly constituted army to rescue Cleopatra and give Sextus
a chance to kill Ptolemy in a duel. Caesar (with a wife back in Rome
conveniently left unmentioned) is seen united with Cleopatra in a union
which if it ain't marriage, probably should be.
It was an instructive evening. I learned that, for all its beautiful
singing, Handel's operas are apparently not for me. (I wasn't too crazy
about *Semele*, presented a few years back, either.)
Starting at 7 pm and not letting us go until 10:45, the opera seemed
almost Wagnerian in length. Program notes had warned me that Handel's
operas were different from later operas with which we were more likely
to be familiar. Thus the action was carried out in the recitatives and
the arias were deliberate interruptions in the narrative to provide an
opportunity to illustrate the character's thoughts. This could get a bit
irritating, at least for me, as the clock was closing in on 10 when the
characters are about to embark on heroic or villainous projects...but first
have to sing this little song, which is never little. I'm not saying that
I got three and three quarter hours of "Ombra mai fu" or similar sounding
arias, but perhaps about two hours' worth of such arias from which the rest
Mind you, all the arias were beautiful, and, like Philip Kennicott, who
wrote of this performance in the Washington Post, I would not be able to
fault a single singer, but one can reach a point of surfeit. Missing were
ensembles that might have broken what I considered to be the monotony of
a seemingly endless succession of Handel arias. The only instances of
ensembles that I recall were duets between Cornelia and Sextus and at the
end between Caesar and Cleopatra.
Among the fine singers, I thought Hei-Kyung Hong (Cleopatra) stood out
prominently. (When her curtain call came, the bulk of the audience, which
had remained seated rose in appreciated.) I don't think any of her arias
bored me. I liked Catherine Keen (Cornelia) and Marguerite Krull almost
as much. Note that two of these three were women singing women's parts.
Which leads me to realize that, except for Cherubino in *Figaro* I've never
seen the point of trouser roles (of which Richard Strauss seems so fond;
why must Octavian be sung by a woman?) or women substituting for castrati.
Why did male roles in Handel's time have to be written for castrati anyway?
I don't think Purcell, who died when Handel was ten saw the need. At least
not in *Dido and Aeneas*, which I would value at ten *Julius Caesars*
anyway! Or at least five.
I don't really wish to dis Handel. I greatly enjoy *The Messiah*.
And I can still remember, back in college, waiting for successive London
recordings of his Opus 6 Concerti Grossi played by the Boyd Neel group to
come out and feeling so amply rewarded for the wait each time. But I think
*Julius Caesar* may have been too much of a good thing.