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February 19, 2012

Peabody Chamber Opera's 'Giulio Cesare' at Theatre Project

If you have a chance to catch Peabody Chamber Opera's presentation of Handel's "Giulio Cesare in Egitto" at Theatre Project -- the final performance is Sunday afternoon -- take it. 

Peabody doesn't produce baroque operas every day, and the other local companies that used to dip into this repertoire have folded up their tents. UPDATE: As readers have pointed out, the observation about Peabody and baroque opera is not quite legit. In my carelessness, I think I got a wee bit confused. It is fair, I think, to say that the conservatory has not put much focus on Handel operas. But I will be promptly set right, if I am off on that point, too.

This is one of Handel's greatest scores, filled with colorful, richly expressive arias. Within the rigid structures of baroque opera, the aria-after-aria progression, the composer proved wonderfully creative.

All the while, he revealed something meaningful about the characters and their relationships. This is not a case of mere vocal show.

This opera has a good story, too, of course. Director Timothy Nelson has put a provocative contemporary spin on it, from the "Mission Accomplished" sign to assorted acts of torture. This is not exactly Handel's Middle East, but he would still recognize the place and the issues as Caesar and Cleopatra find love and danger.

I'm not convinced by all of Nelson's ideas (in a program note, he writes that ...

some elements here provide an homage to 1981 "Giulio Cesare" production by his friend and mentor Peter Sellars).

But things that strike me as a little, well, precious, such as the imitation handguns (characters point fingers at each other), are balanced by many a deft touch. One example is the handing of photos to Caesar to provide evidence of Pompey's beheading.

In the end, things fit together to form a cohesive, thought-provoking package. Nelson's all-white design for the staging completes the picture effectively.

The cast doesn't sound as vocally sturdy or developed as those in some Peabody ventures (Italian pronunciation varies widely, too)l, but the singers get the job done and are finely tuned into Nelson's concept.

Countertenor Daniel Moody, as Caesar, does impressive work. The timbre could use more bloom, but it has obvious potential, and the singer's phrasing is admirably eloquent throughout. Julie Bosworth, as Cleopatra, is sometimes pressed to her limit by the dramatic flourishes, but otherwise shapes the music, especially "Piangero la sorte mia," a sublime example of Handelian beauty, with a good deal of character.

Janna Critz (Cornelia) and Elizabeth Merrill (Sesto) contribute some of the production's most vivid vocalism. There is sensitive supporting work from Kerry Holohan (Tolomeo), Matthew Sullivan (Achilla) and Megan Ihnen (Nireno).

The Baltimore Baroque Band, led by Adam Pearl, can be rough in tone, but rises to the challenges to provide a dynamic element in this ambitious and welcome production.

PHOTOS BY EDWARD S. DAVIS
Posted by Tim Smith at 7:23 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Clef Notes, Peabody Institute
        

Comments

It is not the Peabody's first full-fledged Baroque opera. I was part of a fully-staged production of L'Incoronazione di Poppea in 1994, with a period instrument band led by Webb Wiggins (now at Oberlin) and Ken Slowik (of the Smithsonian)--and it's hard to believe that that was the only other one before or since!

Thanks for the correction. I think it is still safe to say 'not every day,' so I'll amend my comment . TIM

Peabody HAS produced a fair number of Baroque Operas. See
http://www.peabodyopera.org/seasons/corep/
for specifics. You'll be surprised...

JoAnn Kulesza, Music Director, Opera Dept.

And surprised I am. This will teach me not to listen to idle gossip in the lobby. However, could this be the first Handel opera done by Peabody? Perhaps that is what I actually heard and should have written. TIM

The Met has just announced that "Giulio Cesare" will be presented in their 2012-13 season. We heard it here first! Bravo to all who participated in the Peabody production.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog
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