Hail Caesar! – A review of the Opera Theater’s “Julius Caesar”


By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli

The Opera Theater’s Summer Fest is in full swing with pop-up productions of Handel’s “Julius Caesar” in a snazzy new venue, running alternatively in the same space as the Shakespearean comedy, “Kiss Me, Kate.”

But for George Frideric Handel’s “Julius Caesar” you don’t even have to brush up your Shakespeare (it’s a “Kiss Me, Kate” reference), because this has nothing to do with the Bard’s tragedy in iambic pentameter. Handel’s story, originally titled, “Julius Caesar in Egypt” or, more accurately, “Giulio Cesare in Egitto,” is an entirely different chapter in Caesar’s life. The Opera Theater’s production is in English with English subtitles projected above the stage.

The story begins on the banks of the Nile as Caesar (Andrey Nemzer) proclaims victory over Pompey. Pompey’s wife Cornelia (Sara Beth Shelton) and son, Sextus (Katherine Beck) seek mercy, but it’s too late. Achillas (James Eder), a soldier of Ptolemy’s (Min Sang Kim) arrives bearing a grotesque gift for Caesar; the severed head of Pompey. Of course, Sextus, son of Pompey, swears vengeance on Ptolemy. Caesar is outraged at the brutal killing (especially since Cornelia is standing right next to him when he opens the present), and he also vows vengeance on Ptolemy (the p is silent like in pneumonia).

Meanwhile, Cleopatra (Lara Lynn McGill) is at the royal court, conspiring against her brother Ptolemy. The two co-rule Egypt, and Cleo wants the throne for herself. It’s evident pretty quickly that Ptolemy is cruel and petty. Cleo wants to ensnare Caesar into doing her dirty work, as luck would have it he’s already angry at her bro. Cleopatra assumes a false identity, Lydia, and rushes off to meet with the Roman general. The two fall madly in love with each other, despite all the political intrigue swirling around them. They vow to meet again. But, you know, war breaks out and things get complicated.

Caesar, Andrey Nemzer, (seated) is enthralled by the beautiful Cleopatra, Lara Lynn McGill (center right).

The good news is it ends a lot happier than William Shakespeare’s tale of the Roman leader.

The action takes place on a rake theater, sloped toward the audience. The Falk Theater’s slope is dramatic. Picture the Joker’s lair in the ’66 “Batman” television show. It makes it easy to see all the action, and for an opera, there is plenty of action.

The real reason to go to the show is the music and Nemzer’s voice is mesmerizing. The role was originally written for Senesino (a famed performer who was a member of the castrato), but Nemzer is able to hit all the high notes.

McGill’s Cleopatra is every bit as charismatic as a Cleopatra should be, with a melodic singing voice (probably giving her a leg up on the queen of the Nile).

The entire cast has glorious voices [you can check out clips of the show here]. However, in opera the acting is much broader than in a drama or comedy, and it’s a little distracting at first, but their amazing voices draw you in.

The show only suffered one real flaw. For some reason, director Dan Rigazzi decided it would be funny if cell phones could be used in a few sight gags. Let’s get this straight: There’s no reason to force contrivances of modern society into a timeless opera for a cheap laugh. It was the only infraction of the evening, but it was a particularly vexing one.

On another positive note; there’s a lovely interlude with Caesar, Andrew Fouts, a soloist from Chatham Baroque, and two male dancers, LeTrea Rembert and Brady Sanders, that’s worth the price of admission. Rembert and Sanders are skilled dancers and comport themselves gloriously about the stage. Kudos to choreographer Jessica Marino for one of the most delightful moments of the show.

High marks must be doled out for Chatham Baroque, the music is exquisite and superbly played.

You have one more chance to catch “Julius Caesar” on July 23 at the Falk Auditorium, Winchester Thurston School, 555 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For additional details, click here. If Caesar isn’t your cup of tea, there’s plenty of very different offerings at Summer Fest. You can also check out the rest of the fest right here.

– MB

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