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Cleopatra Takes a Bath 

Wednesday, Feb 28 2001
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In 48 B.C. or thereabouts, some kind of hanky-panky may or may not have occurred between Julius Caesar, conqueror of Egypt, and Cleopatra, claimant to that country‘s throne. Caesar was 52 at the time; Cleopatra was 20. Several centuries later, George Bernard Shaw, and after him Cecil B. De Mille, dealt with that liaison in realistic terms: a paternal Caesar holding a kittenish Cleopatra at arm’s length. Not so, however, Nicola Francisco Haym, whose libretto for George Frideric Handel‘s Giulio Cesare in Egitto deals with, among other matters, the burning desire of both principals to make their way toward a shared bed. Handel’s music for Caesar, written for an ardent, young-sounding castrato rather than a lordly baritone, suspends historical verities in favor of romance.

One charming similitude exists between the Cleopatra of De Mille‘s 1934 epic and the character of that name onstage at the Music Center in Handel’s opera these nights. Both take baths. Claudette Colbert is, of course, demurely depicted; in her tub of asses‘ milk she could, for all one sees, be wearing a suit of armor. In Francesco Negrin’s version of the opera, brought in from Opera Australia and here through March 10, Elizabeth Futral strips down to the altogether behind a decorously deployed but rather flimsy towel, descends to her bath with a few anatomical details in clear and titillating view, kicks up soapsuds with a well-turned ankle -- while singing her big Act 2 aria, ”Bella venere,“ an invocation, naturally enough, to the Goddess of Love.

As Handel‘s operas arrive at their deserved estate -- they now bejewel the repertory of virtually all major houses -- most of the bromides attached to them can be discarded. They are long, yes, and repetitious, yes, but singers with proper intelligence have learned how to make repetitions less repetitious and, thus, lengths less long. The singers involved in this Cesare do fine, agile tricks with repeats; furthermore, they are guided by the splendid musical imagination of the conductor, Britain’s Harry Bicket (well known from recordings) to realize the motive power of this intensely dramatic music.

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Yes, there are three (counter)tenors, and the press-release people have had a field day over that. (There were also three countertenors in John Adams‘ El Niño, which I reported on recently, if anyone cares.) They belong; Handel put them there, and it isn’t often that a company is lucky enough to corral so spectacular a trio. David Daniels is the burly Cesare, buzz-cut and sporting a Don Johnson growth of beard, somewhat soft of voice for a 3,000-plus-seat auditorium if truth be told, but remarkable for the sensitivity and pure beauty of his singing. Bejun Mehta (related to Zubin over several degrees of separation) is the villainous Tolomeo, his icy-pure singing cutting through Handel‘s orchestra like an extension of the sword he artfully wields. In the smaller role of the weasely go-between Nireno, David Walker manages a delightful and compelling squeak. Our two local mezzo-sopranos -- Suzanna Guzman, the Cornelia, and Paula Rasmussen, the Sesto -- figure among the worthy participants.

And then there is Elizabeth Futral’s Cleopatra, on an even higher level than any of the above. She was the Stella in Andre Previn‘s hapless A Streetcar Named Desire at the San Francisco Opera, and an enchanting Violetta last season in a Traviata at Orange County’s Opera Pacific. Her Cleopatra -- the voice radiantly pure over a phenomenal range, the acrobatic coloratura immaculately dispatched -- proclaims her an artist with no discernible limitations. You could well wonder, as she and Daniels sang their final music out on a runway practically in the audience‘s lap, whether Handel himself, with all the legendary blather about his menagerie of singers, ever had it that good.

I also had to think back to Beverly Sills, whose career skyrocketed after her Cleopatra in 1966 -- as Futral’s surely will now. I had to realize how far we‘ve come toward a realization of what these Handel operas are all about. The New York City Opera’s Julius Caesar -- its first professional American staging -- was hailed as a revelation, and I suppose it was. It was also wrong. The title role was transposed down so that the bass-baritone Norman Treigle, even with his vocal splendor, projected nothing of the fantasy -- the moment, for example, when Caesar and the orchestra‘s first horn play around on the same pitch. The score was chopped to bits; music from other operas was inserted. Over the resultant mellifluous, gorgeous-sounding mess, we critics raved and raved. We, too, have come a long way.

Have I suggested with any of this that the Giulio Cesare currently downtown ranks as entertainment exhilarating, delectable and not to be missed? I hope so, because it does. The new production is great, good fun: high imagination and astounding music gloriously conjoined. Never have four hours seemed so short.

Against my usual broodings on the imperfections of the work itself, Opera Pacific’s Carmen also turned out to be time well spent. Credit, once again, befalls music director John DeMain for a sizzling pacing sparked with some enlightened decision making: Use the original version with spoken dialogue, thus losing about a quarter-hour of bad, time-wasting music; ditch the Act 4 ballet, ditto.

Irina Mishura was the rich-voiced, vivid Carmen, captivating while singing, not so much while dancing or wielding the castanets. Mark Baker was the Jose, Jeffrey Wells the Escamillo, both a point or two above adequate. Robin Follman‘s shrill, vibrato-ridden Micaela merely reminded me once again that this is opera’s most expendable role. The village scenes in the first and fourth act were full of life and color, and the kiddie chorus actually had interesting biz now and then. Again -- as in the Handel, as in almost everything these days -- the updating gremlins were at work; sets and costumes by Riccardo Hernandez and Constance Hoffman dragged the look of things into something vaguely 1940-ish. Mostly, however, it worked.

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