The New York Times printed an article by Anthony Tommasini in its Jan. 30 Arts & Leisure section titled “How Long, in Opera, Is Too Long?” It’s a perceptively written piece by a true opera omnivore, but it’s more a can-of-worms opener than a real overview of the subject. As Tommasini wends his way around the grippingly composed and the dramatically inert corners of the repertory, he leaves aside two huge factors in determining how long an opera—even a short opera—can feel to an audience: genre (for lack of a better word) and production.
Genre—Baroque, atonal, Wagnerian, etc.—becomes a box-office issue depending upon where you are. Tommasini is writing in New York City, a town with two big, full-season opera houses, a long annual roster of visiting companies, and a slew of smaller groups and university music departments offering any out-there rarity you can imagine. Wagner, Glass, Rameau, and Monk have built-in fan clubs, and their operas often sell out before opening.
That’s not the case in smaller American cities, where a one-stop opera house attracts an audience simply because it’s producing something and attendance is a social imperative. These are the places where genre becomes a tricky issue. The no-brainer plots and easy lyricism of Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, and Johann Strauss tend to be what folks know and feel comfortable with. Unless audiences are game for an ear-opening plunge, small-town experiments with the extreme ends of the operatic canon can come off as internment at a cultural re-education camp.
I remember being taken aback some years ago when talking to a couple of regional opera general directors. One was recounting how Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos—a piece as playful and Romantically lush as Der Rosenkavalier—had caused an uproar among the constituents of his small Southern company, who referred to it as “that experimental garbage.” His colleague topped him with horror stories about his attempts to convince another, much bigger Southern company that Mozart—Mozart, fer chrissakes!—was not risky alternative repertoire. I was thoroughly disheartened until I traveled to Opera Omaha, where audiences were happily abuzz over a rep of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Glass’ The Juniper Tree, and a bit of singularly wacked-out avant-gardiana, Where’s Dick?. Formulas be damned, I thought: Every community has its own vibe, its own sense of adventure.
The reason I bring this up at all is because, in many ways, Washington resembles a small town more than it does New York’s cultural megalopolis. Experimental works (often done by those tiny D.C. companies that dot the musical landscape, then disappear) count audiences in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands. Washington Opera has, with rare exception, a history of sidestepping even such increasingly mainstream fare as Janacek, Debussy, Berg, Monteverdi, Britten, Berlioz, and (until recently) Wagner. And as for the Baroque, William Christie’s splendid, re-creative ventures into Lully, Charpentier, and Rameau, which settle into the popular Brooklyn Academy of Music for entire mini-seasons, tend to play single performances out at George Mason University without Washingtonians crying for more.
So when Washington Opera announced it would be importing the Met production of Handel’s 1724 Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar)—currently playing at the KenCen Opera House—warning lights started flashing. Few would doubt Handel’s theatrical smarts, certainly, and this tale of Ptolemy’s pissing match with his sister Cleopatra over the Egyptian throne, and with Caesar over world domination, has dramatic potential written all over it. But for a nonspecialist audience its very Baroqueness becomes an issue. Running nearly five hours in an uncut performance, the opera is constructed of a long stream of formal a-b-a arias—a fixture of late-Baroque vocal music in which a heightened emotional state is expressed in an introduction, a first section (a), a contrasting section (b), and an ornamented reprise of the first section (a)—connected by long stretches of sparsely accompanied recitative, with the occasional duet or chorus thrown in for variety. Handel’s music is glorious, but all these structures within structures tend to delight 18th-century specialists and kill nonbelievers at 30 paces.
And that’s where the production factor kicks in. Argue all you want about stage-savvy composers and librettists, but let’s face it: A compelling production can rivet you to a mediocre opera (or play, or ballet), and a prosaic or boneheaded staging can scuttle the most exhilarating of works. The Met’s Caesar has its share of problems. Big in a glitzy way, the John Copley-directed, John Pascoe-designed production treads an uneasy line between stand-and-belt 18th-century voguing and something resembling real-life human interaction, with languid note-spinning and campy excesses taking the place of genuine thrills. The great glory of the show has been the Met’s casting (last season featuring David Daniels, Jennifer Larmore, Sylvia McNair, and Brian Asawa), which WashOp could hardly be expected to match.
Surely a revival of Peter Sellars’ mid-’80s PepsiCo Summerfare staging would’ve made more sense as a production for D.C. As usual, Sellars lit a late-20th-century, pop-cultural fire under Mr. Handel’s butt, setting a heavily Secret-Serviced Caesar by Cleo’s poolside in a thoroughly modern Arab oil state. Attention to telling behavioral detail brought out devilish wit and sharp, dramatic tension in Nicola Francesco Haym’s libretto, making the score (presented complete!) seem a lot trimmer. Surely this would’ve been the tailor-made Caesar for the capital of the free world, especially in a year of presidential politics, Middle East summits, and surging oil prices. It also wouldn’t have hurt to redress WashOp’s mulish resistance to Sellars during his KenCen tenure. Fat chance, though, that Sellars will have an airing here as long as WashOp is Domingo’s baby; Placido has said, essentially: “Sellars, Schmellars”; the guy’s too extreme for WashOp’s highbrow, middle-of-the-road, low-tolerance tastes.
But expectations are often confounded in the opera world, and the happy news is that WashOp’s retooled Met Caesar—now with more than an hour pruned off its length—is a joy from start to finish. Pascoe has pared down his sets to minimalist proportions and has replaced Copley as director. Characters now seem lived-in and three-dimensional. The stage action is not just motivated but driven. Reflective arias suggest psychological complexity, and active ones smack of unbridled passion. Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s lighting is evocative, and Michael Stennett’s costumes are a sly, smartly executed mix ‘n’ match of ancient Egypt and Handel’s London. Set changes (hallelujah!) are executed during the arias—as they were at the Met, but accomplished more compellingly here: The characters watch black curtains hurtling down behind them like judgments from heaven, and then launch into the finales of their arias with renewed resolve. Now that’s stagecraft.
The motor behind the production’s focus and momentum is Will Crutchfield—scholar, former New York Times music critic, keyboardist, vocal coach, and, with increasing frequency, conductor. His work on the podium for Caesar is light-footed, transparent, bracing, and full of dramatic point. The fact that he conducts from the harpsichord makes all the difference, he moves the recitatives with the pace of natural speech and dovetails them seamlessly into the arias. There is a feeling to the evening of constant motion and mercurial change—if occasionally too mercurial, as when singers are left in the dust by an impulsively galloping tempo from the podium—and moments of repose are dictated by dramatic need, not by orchestral limitations or mistaken notions of Baroque propriety.
The cast is strong, even by WashOp standards, led by two singers whose gifts have inexplicably been overlooked by the celebrity machine. Granted, Viveca Genaux’s voice is a small one. But it’s no smaller than that of fellow mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, and her handsome, nut-brown tone can stand comparison not only with that of the Italian superstar, but also with that of Met fave Larmore. Genaux, formerly a charming Rosina in WashOp’s Barber of Seville, swaggers convincingly through the title role—she looks pretty swell in male duds—confident in her acting, arresting in her phrasing, flawless in her coloratura.
Hei-Kyung Hong is another singer who makes you wonder why she’s not more of a household name. Cast in leading roles at the Met alongside Kiri Te Kanawa and Renee Fleming, Hong has their brand of ravishing tone, though hers is enlivened by a silvery vibrato and shot through with a vein of melancholy darkness. She’s stunningly beautiful onstage and a capable actress. Her Cleopatra is suitably wry, kittenish, and effortlessly regal, and her gorgeously sung extended arias are highlights of each act.
Catherine Keen, as Cornelia, the much-desired widow of the slain Roman General Pompey, displays a mezzo of opulent tone and more amplitude than any two singers on that stage. Were she not so voluptuous, she’d make a powerhouse Caesar herself. The role of Pompey’s son Sextus was taken at the Met by that unbeatable countertenor Daniels, whose fiery, penetrating voice suggests the thrillingly unearthly sound of Handel-era castratos, without the snip-snip. But Daniels, a beefy, grown man, looked odd as the adolescent Sextus. Marguerite Krull’s gangly boyishness and piping, excitable lyric soprano make for a more credible, if less dazzling, Sextus.
WashOp’s countertenor cast member, Flavio Oliver, throws some splendid temper tantrums as the decadent, self-absorbed Ptolemy, his voice clear, full throughout his range, and loaded with character. With less to do, baritones Jonathan Hayes and Vladimir Shvets sing mellifluously in the roles of Achillas and Curius. Julia Fischer, yet another talented mezzo in yet another guy role—the gender ambiguity in this opera could make your head explode—does what she can as Cleo’s grandfatherly confidant Nirenus.
Not a visionary or recontextualizing production, then—we can pretty much despair of seeing one of those at Casa Dominga—but an imaginatively conducted and directed, traditional go at a big ol’ Baroque warhorse. The Crutchfield-Pascoe Caesar has enough to satisfy period specialists, enough to entertain listeners who rarely touch this stuff, and enough to give its fine performers something to dig their acting chops into and show off their juicy voices. It’s a production that makes a very long opera feel short. And that’s saying a lot. CP