Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Met's Giulio Cesare: Opera in Adolescence

(Reflection on Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare, seen live broadcast in HD to a local movie theatre from the Metropolitan Opera 27 April 2013.   Directed by David McVicar.)
When a seventh grade boy passes through a wide doorway, he's likely to jump up to touch the lintel.  A couple of years before, he was too small and too weak to reach so high, and he loves to try out his new capabilities. For me, a seventh grade writing and drama teacher, my students' trying out their new powers of understanding and athleticism compensates for more irksome and awkward traits.  The Met's production of Giulio Cesare reminds me of seventh graders.  Written at a time when opera itself was young, Handel’s opera displays a seventh grade writer's cartoonish characters, insouciant disregard for credibility, and joyful creative energy.

The energy comes primarily from Handel’s music.  It rocks along in dance rhythms most of the time, and he loves to strum power chords for dramatic effect as much as any heavy metal band.  Like an adolescent musician, he loves to dazzle us with breakneck speed in furious string parts and even in sung lines.  When the songs do slow down, as in the sumptuous duet for female voices at the end of act one, the beat pulses underneath, while the voices sustain long lines that swell and turn in unexpected places.   

The libretto combines favorite seventh grade motifs: revenge, romance, power, and random violence.  The story of boy (spurred by his mother) who seeks revenge is wrapped around a story of a princess and prince who fall in love at first sight.   

For this production, the director let the stage action go wherever the music and words suggested.  Cleopatra (Natalie Desai)’s dances veered between Ruby Keeler and Lady Gaga.  Marx Brothers came to mind in a slapstick competition between Cleopatra and her arrogant brother Tolomeo, and in a seduction scene that involves a bathtub, a bed, and feigned sleep to seduce Julius Caesar (David Daniel).   But we also had gruesome bloody effects for a severed head, battles, and a stabbing, not to mention the spectacle of the literally bloodthirsty mother bathing her hands and her boy’s face in the gore at the moment their revenge is realized.

So the characters are remote; the repetitions in Handel’s A – B – A arias lengthen the opera by 90 minutes; and, yes, there’s cognitive dissonance when soprano voices emanate from three grown men, and when a grown woman plays a boy.   Yet the five hours’ running time passed quickly, and I felt exhilarated at the end.   It was like watching seventh graders showing off on a playground how high they can jump, how fast they can run, how funny they can be.   

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