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Aspen Music Festival 2002

Handel, ‘Giulio Cesare’, San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, July 3rd 2002 (HS)

A few weeks before opening night, soprano Ruth Ann Swenson was leading a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. During a break, a member of the audience asked about her upcoming role as Cleopatra in Handel's "Giulio Cesare" at San Francisco Opera. "That girl never shuts up," Swenson joked.

The opening night audience could be forgiven if it left the opera house thinking they had just seen Handel's "Cleopatra." Not that there were any slouches in the rest of the cast, which included the countertenors David Daniels and Bejun Mehta and the mezzo sopranos Felicity Palmer and Ruxandra Donose. But Handel wrote a string of sensational arias for Cleopatra. In Swenson's hands, each one created its own magic, and she just took over the show.

That was just fine, given the eccentricities of the production, which mixed costume styles and other visual elements willy-nilly, presumably in an homage to the historical excesses of the Baroque opera era. Cleopatra wore a series of spectacular French-inspired gowns. Giulio Cesare looked like he stepped out of a Shakespearean epic. Tolomeo (the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy) was portrayed as swishy and acquired a couple of bare-chested boy toys.

Fortunately, none of this got in the way of the story, which has Cesare's love of Cleopatra helping him conquer all in the end, and Cleopatra developing from a sassy girl into a smart woman. This performance's characterizations owed more to vocal achievements than physical portrayals. And with conductor Nicholas McGegan leading a fleet and remarkably deft performance, the visual silliness mattered little.

In her arias, Swenson created a finely crafted portrait of a girl gaining maturity as she finds love, all the while scheming and battling against her brother for the Egyptian throne. "V'addoro pupille," the famous love song that opens Act II, couldn't have been creamier or more seductive. A later aria in the same act, "Se pieta di me non senti" ("If you feel no pity for me") soared with sustained emotion and thrilling technique. Her final aria, "Piangero la sorte mia" ("I will weep at my fate"), became a tour de force of spectacular singing, contrasting Cleopatra's laments with fury in full Baroque cry.

Swenson even defused a potentially awkward moment on opening night, July 19. In Act III a backderop painted with a sphynx stopped a few feet short of the stage floor as it dropped in the midst of her Act III aria. Sensing trouble, she turned around during an orchestra interlude, saw what was happening and simply spread her arms wide in a gigantic shrug. She didn't miss a beat, and the audience loved it.

As Cesare, Daniels displayed astonishingly beautiful vocal line, exquisite phrasing and uncannily natural-sounding coloratura. He was most effective in the slow arias and cavatinas, especially "Non e si, vago e bello". At one point he sang a superbly seamless crescendo and diminuendo on a single note that must have lasted 15 seconds -- and then continued in the next phrase without a breath. That's what they call messa di voce, and how. Daniels looked heroic but the voice lacked the heft to actually be heroic. Guiltily, I found myself wishing for Marilyn Horne when the music called for heroism. Or perhaps Mehta, who sang Tolomeo with all the clarion sound and command of all the musical elements one could want.

Palmer, as Cornelia, the Roman widow of Pompey (beheaded by Tolomeo before the opera begins), got off to a rocky start with some hooty sounds but actually sounded noble in some of her arias. Playing her son, Sesto, Donose was much more pleasing to listen to. The low men's voices did not distinguish themselves.

The night clearly belonged to Swenson, but McGegan deserved every bravo he got in the curtain calls. Handel never sounded so agile, so pliant, so noble, so completely right in this huge house (3,000 seats plus).

Harvey Steiman


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