Handel has earned his place —  a century late, perhaps, but decisively. The most convincing of the old arguments, that a world enlightened by more benign attitudes toward surgery had therefore cut itself off from the requisite singers for this repertory, has been laid to rest. Promotion for the Los Angeles Opera’s “Giulio Cesare” made merry with the fact that the cast would boast that magic parlay of three, count ‘em, countertenors; the entertainment last Friday on the Music Center stage (which runs through March 10) had nothing to do with Pavarotti-etc., and everything to do with extraordinary performing skills, in the proper vocal registers, applied to sublime musical drama. The four hours of “Cesare,” as near to uncut as never mind, whiz happily by.
Yes, there are three countertenors and yes, they are wonderful. (They never sing together, by the way.) David Daniels is the Caesar, burly, buzz-cut and sporting a Don Johnson almost-beard. His voice doesn’t quite attain the far reaches of a 3085-seat operatic venue, but what there is is extraordinary in beauty and agility. Bejun Mehta — who in the bloom of a phenomenal career need not ride on his second-cousinhood to Zubin – is the evil Ptolemy, his hard-as-ice stainless-steel tones match the sword he wields. David Walker is the slimy go-between Nirenus, a delightful squeak in a smaller role. Suzanna Guzmán is the Cornelia, Paula Rasmussen the Sesto, both estimable mezzo-sopranos whose current nationwide careers were launched as members of the L.A. Opera’s training program.
Above any of these, however, is the Cleopatra of Elizabeth Futral – the Stella in André Previn’s “Streetcar” in 1999, an even more touching Violetta in last season’s “Traviata” in Orange County – and now beyond doubt a newly arrived star of blazing distinction. Her voice is radiantly pure over a phenomenal range, her command of coloratura immaculate. On opening night  she delivered the kind of career-building Cleopatra that Beverly Sills delivered at the New York City Opera in 1966, with the difference that nowadays people sing this music with greater awareness of the rubrics of Handelian vocal style. Oh yes, there was one other difference as well; during her second-act seduction aria “Venere bella” she stripped down to the altogether (behind a decorously draped bath towel, of course) and stepped down into her bath, kicking up a few suds and singing all the while.
Handel’s 1724 audience might not have countenanced such shenanigans; what is remarkable about the current Handelian revival, aside from the satisfactory supply of singers, is the growing realization that “authenticity” in performance values need not clash with adventure in production. The “Cesare” production comes in from Sydney’s Opera Australia; Anthony Baker is the designer, Francesco Negroni the director, and the anachronisms are copious and delightful. The set is a series of slabs that slide around and create performing spaces large and small; Caesar and Cleopatra act out some of their hot business on a runway downstage from the orchestra pit. Caesar’s booted legions could pass for headwaiters at a shashlik joint; Cleopatra’s gowns would have gotten her into the Grammies.
Purists of bygone generations, when Handel operas were regarded either as fodder for connoisseurs of the dry-as-dust or fair game for the rewrite crew, might have climbed walls at the notion that four hours of Handelian opera seria might pass for delightful, but the evidence is here. For a company whose season so far has included a snore-packed “Aida” and a “Bohème” almost unimaginably dreary, this “Giulio Cesare” is just that, a major step toward enlightened opera.

This entry was posted in Musical America. Bookmark the permalink.