Rob Gebelhoff

Mussolini Meets Cleopatra?

Florentine sets Julius Caesar in Fascist Italy, in huge production that requires jazz-like improvisation from performers.

By - Mar 27th, 2014 10:48 am
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Maestro William Boggs (right) reviews the score of Handel's Julius Caesar with Deanne Meek, who will take on the title role. Photo by Kathy Wittman of Ball Square Films.

Maestro William Boggs (right) reviews the score of Handel’s Julius Caesar with Deanne Meek, who will take on the title role. Photo by Kathy Wittman of Ball Square Films.

The Florentine Opera’s opens its first-ever production of George Frederic Handel’s Julius Caesar  this week at the Marcus Center, complete with fantastic Baroque arias, power struggles and — fascist Italy?

That’s right, this version of the story moves the action forward some 19 centuries or so. The production’s director, Eric Einhorn has set the classic romance tale in the mid-20th century, making Caesar a Mussolini-esque character that just happens to fall in love with an Egyptian queen while invading Northern Africa.

Classical music purists needn’t worry, however. William Boggs, who will conduct Julius Caesar as his first ever Baroque opera, plans to keep the score as close to Handel’s original as possible.

“When you reset an opera from its original place and time, the test is if nothing changes musically,” Boggs says. “To be honest, I don’t really care about the set or the costumes. I care about getting the music right.”

And Boggs and the Florentine have put forth great effort to do so, seeking performers that could handle, so to speak, the originally intended vocal styles that Handel had in mind. Casting some singers, like soprano Ava Pine to play Cleopatra and mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti to play Cornelia, was easy. Other roles, however, were a bit more challenging.

“In the time that Handel wrote the piece, there were a lot of castrati, but we’re a little limited on those nowadays,” Boggs jokes. In order to preserve the higher-octave arias developed for the role of Caesar, the Florentine decided to cast mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek to play the male Roman leader. While Boggs says the decision to put a woman in a male role might throw off the audience at first, keeping with the original score was top priority.

Handel, after all, created the piece with the idea of showcasing an international superstar cast. The premiere’s cast included some of the best known singers of the time period, including the Italian sensations, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni and castrati Senesino.

“Today it would be like getting every star in Hollywood to make a movie,” Boggs explains.

It was a high cost production for its day, opening in 1724, and the result was one of Handel’s best known and most widely played operas. Unlike many other Handel operas featuring three or four major singing roles, Julius Caesar was written for eight singers, six of them being major characters with multiple arias. The result: a powerhouse production that is still regarded as a challenging work to pull off.

Deanne Meek (left), who will take on the role of Julius Caesar, works with the production's director, Eric Einhorn (center), and Derrick Ballard, who will play Achilla. Photo by Kathy Wittman of Ball Square Films.

Deanne Meek (left), who will take on the role of Julius Caesar, works with the production’s director, Eric Einhorn (center), and Derrick Ballard, who will play Achilla. Photo by Kathy Wittman of Ball Square Films.

“The works that he wrote for this piece are just fireworks,” Boggs marvels. “It’s like he threw everything but the kitchen sink into this show, both vocally and orchestrally speaking. It’s his Sistine Chapel — his Taj Mahal.”

Part of the brilliance of the works comes from the improvisational aspect that comes with the Baroque style. Handel was a master of da capo arias (or arias “from the head”), a musical form structured to allow singers to improvise in their solos with variations and ornamentations. In the Baroque period, it was through this style that opera singers developed international notoriety. In the Florentine’s production, nearly all 44 arias that will be performed will be da capo.

“You’re watching peacocks strut their stuff vocally,” Boggs says. “You won’t get to hear these arias anywhere else in the world — only at this production.”

Members of the orchestra are expected to do their own improvisation, too. The production will feature such Baroque instruments as the harpsichord and the rarely played theorbo, which stands at seven feet long. The musicians handling both these instruments will ad lib in reaction to the performers’ improvisations.

“Baroque is really kind of a jazzy thing,” Boggs says.

And a very challenging thing. Operas from this era are not easy for companies to produce, as they were developed in a time when operas were formulaically broken up with pauses to allow singers to exit and enter the stage for each aria. Today, however, audiences are used to more continuous action, requiring a lot of creativity from the director to keep the action during the longer arias both entertaining and relevant to the plot.

“The action has to continue far more subtly in modern times than they did in Baroque times,” he explains. “Audiences want to watch a story rather than just one sentiment at a time, and that’s really a director’s call not found in the score.”

For this reason, Baroque operas are not commonly performed and are rare territory indeed for the Florentine. Still, Boggs remains confident the production will connect well with the audience.

“This is a power couple — very much like House of Cards. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is the equivalent of Roman wine, women and songs,” he says. “The audience should be slapped in the face with good music — and walk out wanting to talk about it.”

7:30 p.m. on March 28 and 2:30 p.m. on March 30. Tickets are $39.15-$135.15, available online or by calling 414-291-5700 ext. 224.

Other events coming up:

Hallmarks of Handel by the Ensemble Music Offering

The music of Handel doesn’t stop with the Florentine Opera this week. The Ensemble Music Offering offers two concerts dedicated to Handel’s work — one in Milwaukee and the other in Madison. The performances will include Handel’s Op. 3 Concerti Grossi, Arcadian Duets, and Concerto for Bassoon and String Orchestra.

8 p.m. on March 29, Cathedral Church of All Saints in Milwaukee. Tickets are $30 at the EMO’s website.

The Beethoven Festival continues

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performs at the Pabst Theatre for the second week of its three week company’s Beethoven Festival.

This concert, which centers around Beethoven’s beloved Eroica Symphony (No. 3), will also feature works by Stravinsky and John Adams.

7:30 p.m. on March 27, 8 p.m. on March 28-29, and 2:30 p.m. on March 30. Tickets range from $21.25-$86.25, available at the MSO’s website or by calling (414) 291-7605.

Davidson Chamber Ensemble Recital

The Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra will take on various performances from its extensive Chamber Ensemble Program at four separate performances this weekend.

And, as always, the MYSO will also be putting on its monthly Tuesday Night Jam Sessions at the Jazz Gallery for anyone interested in free music entertainment.

March 30 at 1, 3, 5 and 7 p.m. at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors. More information at the MYSO’s website.

0 thoughts on “Classical: Mussolini Meets Cleopatra?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This Florentine Opera offering (from reading your review) sounds wonderful!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I also hope to see the MYSO at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, thanks for the info!

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