Lyric Opera: All Hail Julius Caesar

NaBloPoMo, Day 26

I had a fantastic night at the opera last Saturday. Expectations were high going in to Handel’s Julius Caesar, which has garnered rave reviews. On the other hand, it’s always with a tad bit of trepidation that I take my seat for any opera with a running time that breaks the four-hour mark.

The performance was fantastic and the four-and-a-half hours flew by. Everything about this production was a revelation: Strong singing and acting (there wasn’t a weak performance in the group); gorgeous, colorful sets, lighting and costumes; whimsical choreography; and a solid performance by the orchestra led by Emmanuelle Haim, Lyric Opera’s first ever female conductor.

The production (originally created for Glyndebourne Festival Opera) updates the Caesar and Cleopatra story to around the turn of the 19th-century. Caesar’s troops are dressed as British soldiers and his military force includes battleships and zeppelins. Cleopatra is sultry and exotic in a variety of outfits from Egyptian courtesan, to sexy flapper, and finally as a version of Marie Antoinette. It all works.

Danielle de Niese nearly steals the show as Cleopatra in her Lyric Opera debut. She’s absolutely fantastic. Her beautiful voice is equally matched by a captivating stage presence. If it weren’t for the Baroque music, you’d almost think you were at a contemporary Broadway show when she’s on stage, with the amount of movement and choreography she employs while singing. The audience loved her.

Handel’s music can be a bit repetitive. Characters tend to sing something and then they sing it again and sometimes, they’ll sing it once more. There aren’t many duets or trios in Handel operas; most of the singing is done solo. If two characters do sing together, it tends to be a back-and-forth sort of thing. Very occasionally do you have a group sing together. So for some (myself included) this style of opera can get a tad tedious. This production of Julius Caesar avoids any hint of boredom, giving the audience much to look at and enjoy in addition to the music. Choreography, stage fighting, musicians performing on stage–Caesar (countertenor David Daniels) and a violinist serenading from on stage have a stunning “duet” together–and the intensity of the lead performances keeps you riveted to the characters and their outcome.

In general, Handel’s music is not my favorite. It’s pretty, but I prefer it in small doses. It all tends to sound the same to me after a while. My taste in opera leans more toward multiple voices melding together, the more the merrier. So it’s been a continual surprise to me through the years that many of my past favorites have been Handel operas. Xerxes (another gorgeous set) and Alcina (with a knock-out Renee Fleming) were amazing productions that stand out in my mind years later. Now, add to that list Julius Caesar.

I was also surprised to learn that this is the first time Julius Caesar has ever been performed by Lyric Opera. Based on what I saw Saturday night, critical acclaim, and the sold-out run, I doubt this is the last Chicago’s seen of this opera or this production.

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