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In Review > North America

Young Caesar

Los Angeles Philharmonic

In REview LA Phil Young Caesar lg 917
Fisher and Adams in LA Phil’s Young Caesar
© Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

THE LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC'S presentation of Lou Harrison’s rarely performed second opera, Young Caesar, arrived at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 13. This mounting of Harrison’s homoerotic 1971 work was an intricately semistaged production by Yuval Sharon that coincided with the LA Pride Festival and celebrated the centennial of the composer, who was openly gay.

Mounted for a single performance as a coproduction with the contemporary opera company The Industry, Young Caesar returned to Southern California more than four decades after its 1971 world premiere, at Caltech in Pasadena. As stated by writer/actor Bruce Vilanch during the prologue, Young Caesar is unlike any other version of the Roman emperor’s life story. (Vilanch, dressed in a flashy tuxedo and nursing a cocktail, subsequently imparted equal parts wisdom and wackiness as the evening’s Narrator.) Young Caesar tells the story of the young patrician Gaius Julius Caesar’s sojourn in the Roman province of Bithynia, where he was sent to collect idled ships from King Nicomedes IV. The king seduces Caesar, and they have a love affair. 

Young Caesar has a troubled performance history: originally conceived as a chamber opera by Harrison and his librettist, Robert Gordon, the work has had several revisions since its first production, most of them devised to ameliorate the dramaturgical clumsiness of Gordon’s libretto and to compress the opera’s originally excessive length. The intermissionless, 112-minute Caesar that was presented in L.A.a synthesis of several earlier versions—seemed almost like an LSD trip. Sharon’s new staging is minimal in action, though fecund with visual projections and, most notably, superimposed phallic puppets (designed by Daniel Selon) during the “Eroticon”—one of Young Caesar’s teasing presentations of lust. Based on the reaction of the audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall, it’s apparent that one can’t stage an orgy simulated by puppets without drawing a few snickers, but Sharon also proved that he could make puppet sex seem elegant. The production benefited from the refinement of its dancers—all men, and all scantily dressed—whose execution of Danny Dolan’s choreography added genuine beauty to an otherwise tongue-in-cheek piece. 

Though Sharon’s staging was visually appealing—projection designs were by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, and lighting was by Christopher Kuhl—the real star of the performance was Harrison’s inventive, singular score, which is highly percussive and layered with intricate Eastern melodies. Young Caesar is comprised almost exclusively of duets and aria-like soliloquies, with scattered bits
of ensemble music, here sung delightfully by the men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, prepared by Grant Gershon. Instruments seldom heard on the Western stage—qinqins, erhus and piris—added haunting moments to the score’s harmonies. Conductor Marc Lowenstein extracted the right tonal colors from his orchestra, most of them members of the LA Phil New Music Group.

A standout was the Nicomedes of New Zealand-born Hadleigh Adams, who joined the cast at the eleventh hour. Adams’s resonant baritone maintains unique beauty of tone throughout his range. Caesar was sung by bright-eyed, honey-timbred Canadian tenor Adam Fisher. Also worth mentioning is tenor Timur Bekbosunov as Dionysus, Caesar’s slave boy, who didn’t seem intimidated by his role’s stratospheric tessitura.

Young Caesar was particularly loved by Harrison, who died in 2003 at the age of eighty-five. One hopes that it won’t take another four decades for it to reconquer Los Angeles.  —Arya Roshanian

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