Ava Pine's Cleopatra made the slog through Florentine's 'Julius Caesar' worth the effort

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Ava Pine as Cleopatra. Photo: Kathy Wittman Ball Square Films for the Florentine Opera

Whenever Ava Pine, as Cleopatra, sang on March 28, we heard and saw the glory of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Otherwise, not so much.

The Florentine Opera production around Pine had some issues. Conductor William Boggs maintained reasonable tempos and cued nicely. But he drew no lift or lilt from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Except for some episodes of recitativo secco, when the continuo group comprising theorbist Dieter Hennings, cellist Scott Tisdel and harpsichordist Yasuko Oura were on their own, the accompaniment chugged along dutifully.

Bland accompaniment has a boring effect on Baroque music.

Aside from Pine, the singing was spotty. Countertenor Ian Howell and mezzo Deanne Meek, both singing roles originally assigned to castrati, lacked the vocal force to sing Ptolemy and Caesar in Uihlein Hall, as least with the balances Boggs enforced. Bass-baritone Derrick Ballard, as Achilla, made himself heard but lacked expressive nuance.

Eve Gigliotti, as the hapless and ever-weeping Cornelia, widow of the defeated Pompey, projected well and brought out the pathos Handel intended in all his dissonant half-step suspensions and passing tones. Gigliotti and Adriana Zabala, ardent as her son Sesto, sang a particularly touching duet.

They had to try to make their characters live within stage director Eric Einhorn’s concept, which sounded great on paper: Posit Julius Caesar as Mussolini, or perhaps his most ambitious general, on one of his absurd colonial adventures into North Africa in the 1920s. That opened the door to cool uniforms, old newsreel projections and real or fake period propaganda graphics.

Einhorn, projection designer Kathy Wittman and costume designer Christianne Myers gave us some of those things, especially early in this very long opera. But then the concept more or less disappeared, except for the uniforms. For example, there were inexplicable sword and knife fights, despite the fact that Julius’ lieutenant (Pablo Siquieros) could have just pulled out his Luger and shot.

And while the Italians in the opera are dressed for the 1920s, the Egyptians went barefoot under robes familiar from every ancient-Egyptian-themed movie you’ve ever seen.

I’m not insisting that this creative team should have made real-world sense out of Nicola Francesco Haym’s nonsensical 1724 libretto. It hardly mattered in an opera designed as a canary fest and costume show more than compelling drama. But I did hope for a coherent look and feel within the production. It’s as if the team forgot its concept during the course of staging this disjointed show.

They also overlooked too much obvious unintentional comedy — in particular the Victorian bloomers revealed when Ptolemy “savagely” ripped off Cornelia’s dress. How did they not see that as a Benny Hill moment?

Noele Stollmack’s set and lighting didn’t help. The design comprised nearly symmetrical white staircases and platforms on either side of a central ramp that rose at least nine feet from stage level from down center to up center. Horizontal panels descended from the heavens to reshape the space from time to time, and the performers slid vast vertical panels from side to side. Beautiful long draperies dropped in and flew out. As pure design, the set pleased the eye with its elegant austerity and impressed the mind with its flexibility.

But its utter neutrality communicated nothing about the characters or their world. It could have been the setting for any opera. And, while no performers tumbled on March 28, plenty of insteps caught edges and no one looked comfortable on that ramp.

Stollmack splashed light over her set to change its hue occasionally, memorably to red and shades of blue and violet — and that was beautiful. But unless it was the fault of the singers missing their marks, she too often left their faces in semi-darkness. The worst instance occurred during “Venere bella,” Cleopatra’s seduction aria. Einhorn staged it not as a love scene but as a production number Cleopatra stages for an audience of one. Great idea — except that Cleo’s servant Nirena (Erin Gonzalez) was upstage shining a rolling stage light at her from behind, thus casting Pine’s face into shadow and pointing a light into the eyes of the audience.

Pine is a comely lass, but we needn’t see her to know that Cleopatra is the sexiest woman on Earth, whether in 48 BC or 1925. We could hear it in the gorgeous, honeyed soprano she wound around Handel’s most sensuous melody like a cobra coiling up a perfect leg.

A number of patrons left after the lengthy, slow-moving, expository Act 1. They should have stayed, because Julius Caesar became more and more Cleopatra — that is, more and more Ava Pine — as Acts II and III unfolded. Only late in the opera could she reveal her coloratura in a combination of spectacular agility, big sound and lush timbre.

The glory of Handel, the glory of opera, the glory of singing are in that voice. The slog through Julius Caesar’s North African campaign was worth it.

For more of veteran cultural writer Tom Strini’s insights, visit his blog at striniwrites.blogspot.com