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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Julius Caesar Meets Cleopatra

Deathless story in the Florentine’s production of Handel’s opera

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George Frideric Handel’s great baroque opera, Julius Caesar (1724), may come as an exhilaratingly provocative and tempestuous treat to those more familiar with the composer’s later choral and orchestral works such as the perennial (and justly acclaimed) Messiah. Although German born, Handel moved to London, became a British subject and is generally acclaimed as England’s preeminent Baroque composer.

His early Italian operas—of which Julius Caesar provides an exemplary illustration—are characterized by compelling freshness, dramatic intensity and an unexaggerated melodic framework highlighted by brilliant vocal composition. These works place greater emphasis on vocal virtuosity and deft, seemingly less formal orchestration than his later English choral works. Julius Caesar is considered one of the finest examples of opera in any form with its superbly melodic arias dramatically enhancing Handel’s multifaceted portrait of Cleopatra. A scintillating score embodies her spectacular characterization, underscored by wily subterfuges designed to ensnare Caesar.  

In the 20th century, Julius Caesar was re-orchestrated and revamped to allow for the traditional 18th-century castrato roles to be performed by mezzo-sopranos or counter-tenors. The new Florentine Opera production follows suit with Julius Caesar sung by mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek (wearing fascistic military garb) and Cleopatra by golden-voiced Ava Pine, a Florentine returning favorite dressed in flowing North African outfits fashioned by noted Florentine designer Christianne Myers. The Metropolitan Opera’s Eric Einhorn directs. Sets and lighting by Noele Stollmack will include video projection effects for a touch of contemporary visual snap. In supporting roles will be mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala along with counter-tenor Ian Howell and newcomer Derrick Ballard. William Boggs, two-time Grammy winner for Elmer Gantry, conducts the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Julius Caesar will be performed March 28 and 30, at Uihlein Hall of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, visit florentineopera.org.