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Michigan Opera Theatre
Daniels and Oropesa, Cesare and Cleopatra in Detroit
© John Grigaitis 2013
It took Michigan Opera Theatre forty-two years to mount its first Handel opera, but the company's performance of the Baroque master's Giulio Cesare (seen Nov. 10) was one of the most successful I've witnessed during those four-plus decades. The James Robinson production, originally presented in 2003 at Houston Grand Opera and realized for MOT by Michael Shell, places the action on the back lot of a Hollywood studio during the 1930s. Cleopatra is a platinum-blond film star, and the action involves many images associated with Hollywood movies of the 1920s and early '30s, from chorus girls to men in military dress and menacing army tanks.
MOT's mounting of Cesare succeeded for much more substantial reasons than those provided by the high-concept, somewhat silly production. Handel was a masterful opera composer. Working within the strict confines of the Baroque style of his day, he was able to fill his music with a stunning array of dramatic elements easily as impressive as those of Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. MOT assembled a cast of singers fully conversant with Handel's style, along with a superb conductor, London-born Howard Arman, who demonstrated the full glory of Handel's score by maintaining taut rhythms and vibrant tempos.
David Daniels, who was Cesare when this production had its premiere in Houston, made one of the most valuable debuts in recent MOT history. The countertenor — who studied with tenor George Shirley at the University of Michigan — sang Cesare with consummate artistry, meeting all of Handel's artistic and technical demands. Equally impressive was soprano Lisette Oropesa, whose secure coloratura soprano did full justice to Cleopatra's music, notably "Piangerò la sorte mia" — surely one of the most beautiful arias ever written by Handel. The remainder of the gifted cast was equally satisfying. Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy (Cornelia) took some time to warm up, but once she did she sang with dramatic flair, as did mezzo Emily Fons, cast as Cornelia's son, Sesto. Countertenors Anthony Roth Costanzo (Tolomeo) and Eric Jurenas (Nireno) offered performances of admirable gusto. Laura Leigh Roelofs, assistant concertmaster of the MOT Orchestra, performed a disarmingly deft onstage duet with Daniels.
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