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'Giulio Cesare': Maryland Studio's Winning Gambit

By Joseph McLellan
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page C05

Countertenor Jay White was the bad guy, Tolomeo (Ptolemy to us Egyptologists), in Thursday night's performance of Handel's "Giulio Cesare" by the Maryland Opera Studio.

In earlier performances, White (a veteran of eight years with the Chanticleer ensemble, now studying for his doctorate) had taken the good-guy role of Julius Caesar, which was performed this time by mezzo-soprano Alissa Anderson, who sang the role of Cornelia, widow of Pompey, in other performances.

Alissa Anderson and Terry N. Eberhardt are on board for "Giulio Cesare." (Stan Barouh)

From this brief glimpse, it may be clear that "Giulio Cesare" is a rather complicated opera. It is, in fact, and the five-page plot summary in the printed program treats it as a chess match -- not a single game but a complex series of encounters and situations. It's a fair metaphor; the stage in the Clarice Smith Center's Kay Theatre is paved like a chessboard with 64 black and white squares, and images of giant chess pieces are projected on a large screen (a white king when Caesar is singing, a black queen for Cleopatra, etc.). Appropriately, a game opening projected during the overture looks like an unusual variation of the King's gambit. Kenneth Merrill led a baroquely styled performance, conducting from the harpsichord -- as Handel did in 1724, when the opera was new.

Essentially, "Giulio Cesare" is the story of a three-way struggle for control of Egypt, involving Caesar, Ptolemy and Cleopatra (soprano Colleen Daly). But what matters most is the variety of music -- angry, amorous, plaintive, soothing and just plain beautiful -- that the plot's twists and turns drew from Handel, one of the great, inadequately acknowledged opera composers of all time.

Opera seria is perhaps an acquired taste, but when it is done as expertly as in this production, that taste is easy to acquire. Its two major challenges, the requirements of florid coloratura and the complexities of staging a da capo aria, were superbly handled by the singers named earlier, as well as by Terry N. Eberhardt, Laura Denise Mercado and others. Jay White will be the bad guy again at the final performance tonight.

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