Opera buffs know that “high Baroque” opera is a different beast than the Puccini potboilers that attract casual operagoers. With its upcoming production of George Frideric Handel’s Julius Caesar, Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera will recreate the 1724 production with painful accuracy. Almost.
It was common practice in both opera and theater productions of the day for men to be cast in women’s roles and women in men’s roles. In the Florentine’s production, women will play many of the key male roles, including that of Caesar. There are practical as well as historical reasons for this casting.
Handel wrote many of the male roles in Julius Caesar for castrati, men who were castrated as boys to preserve their beautiful soprano voices. The last known castrato sung in a choir in the Sistine Chapel during the early 20th century. Recordings still exist of his performance, according to William Florescu, Florentine’s general director.
“The castrati were the rock stars of their day and sang alongside countertenors (male altos),” Florescu says. “The castrati sang with the power of a man, but also with the range of a woman.”
If that seems strange, Florescu says, to consider the number of pop stars who have made their careers singing falsetto. The BeeGees, The Temptations, The Four Seasons, Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson come to mind.
“Also remember that Shakespearean theater had many men playing women,” he adds. “In some ways the 17th and 18th centuries were more progressive than we are today.”
In Julius Caesar, Florescu follows the gender-bending casting of bygone days. Absent an adequate supply of castrati, Florescu has cast powerful women performers in key roles in his production, which is directed by Metropolitan Opera’s Eric Einhorn.
Soprano Ava Pine, last seen as Bianca in Florentine’s 2010 production of Río de Sangre, plays the seductive Cleopatra opposite mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek, making her Florentine debut as Julius Caesar. Mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, who played Cherubino, another cross-dressing role, in last year’s The Marriage of Figaro, sings Sextus.
Countertenor Ian Howell (as Ptolemy), contralto Eve Gigliotti (Cornelia) and bass Derrick Ballard (Achillas) round out the principal cast. The opera will be sung in Italian with English subtitles as part of the Florentine’s season-long celebration of opera’s Italian heritage.
Julius Caesar is an excellent example of Baroque opera, which tends to be more formulaic and reliant on singing to carry the story, Florescu says. Due to its fullness of character and richness of orchestration, Julius Caesar is considered the greatest of all Baroque operas.
Florentine’s first Baroque opera was Handel’s opera/oratorio Semele. Next came a double bill of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. As the result of those prior productions, “We now can present the pinnacle of Baroque opera in a new production to an audience that will not find it foreign soil,” Florescu says.
As for the cross-dressing roles, Florescu doesn’t feel that Milwaukee’s occasionally conservative audiences will have a problem. The approach is not without precedent here. In the Florentine’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, the male character Idamante was written for a mezzo-soprano and played by a woman. The love scene between Idamante and the female character Illia brought Florescu some unexpected correspondence.
“I had a patron write in to say that I was trying to make a pro-lesbian statement in the scene,” he remembers. “I wrote back and cleared that up by saying that the idea was Mozart’s, not mine, to have a woman play the man!”
Florescu doesn’t expect the same reaction to Julius Caesar. And audiences can take comfort in knowing that no castrati were auditioned for the production.
Florentine Opera’s production of Handel’s Julius Caesar is performed March 28 and March 30 in Uihlein Hall in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. Call 414-291-5700 or go to www.florentineopera.org.
See also Ensemble Musical Offering's all-Handel weekend to be held in conjunction with Julius Caesar.