On first listen to “Va tacito e nascosto,” an aria from the first act of George Frideric Handel’s 1724 Julius Caesar, you’d never suspect it was a thinly veiled threat from one world leader to another in the middle of a war. Jovial and merry and the first time an opera featured solo French horn, the aria is one of the most pleasing things in all of opera. But a glance at the supertitles might chill that: “Intent on his prey, the huntsman moves silently and stealthily,” Caesar sings, the horn an innocent echo.
Houston Grand Opera’s production of Julius Caesar, originally staged here in 2003, is a grab bag of juxtapositions—some great, others not so much. Handel’s opera itself is a contradiction of refined comeliness and brutal empire building, but this production goes steps further. This story of Julius Caesar—synonymous today with political and historical gravity—takes place in Hollywood’s Golden Age on a movie backlot where silver palm trees and cutout tanks coexist. Cleopatra, a feminist force both sexual and smart, looks like blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe in a black negligee (Elizabeth Taylor is somewhere sharpening her nails). The first character to appear is a janitor sweeping the set.
In his HGO debut in the title role, countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo wavered from a tone that sounded caught in his head to breathtaking sonority beautifully adept at melisma. He was at his best in the third act aria “Aure, deh per pieta,” when, surrounded by corpses but miraculously alive, he delivered a stunning resurgence. As Cleopatra, soprano Heidi Stober reigned supreme with a strapping timbre you can obsess over but wouldn’t want to cross. I last heard her in 2016 as The Marriage of Figaro’s Susanna, where her technical agility outshone her castmates in larger roles and left me wanting much more. In this lead role, she does not disappoint.
Because the opera originally called for three castrati, today it’s common to hear contraltos or mezzo-sopranos in the roles of Caesar, Ptolemy and Nirenus. HGO has an impressive trio of countertenors instead. Along with Constanzo, David Daniels, as Ptolemy, has a realm of admirable traits, but Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, as Nirenus, is the sweet voice I can’t forget, pure and surprisingly hefty for its high range. Mezzo-sopranos Stephanie Blythe (Cornelia) and Megan Mikailovna Samarin (Sextus), while technically on par, were less memorable emotionally.
Compared to La Traviata, which opened HGO’s season last week and runs concurrently, Julius Caesar is more successful with the convention space challenges of the Resilience Theater. The orchestra, directed by Patrick Summers stage right behind a chalked line that reads “Orchestra Do Not Touch” in block letters, projected well and incorporated nicely as part of the set. Summers reliably doled out Handel’s treasured score with intention, ease, and grace.
Director James Robinson and set designer Christine Jones, who both made their HGO debut with this production in 2003, also made good use of the convention space but ultimately lost me during Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar, when her high-heeled entourage unfurled a banner plastered with her face and trotted across the stage holding masks with the same image. It reduced the great Cleopatra to a creepy social media stalker assailing your feed.
Haphazardly placing props here and there one moment and captivating with dazzling gowns and pyramids the next, the production doesn’t exactly cohere, nor does it come close to matching Handel’s carefully tailored score. But why worry too much over a set when the sound is so sweet?
Thru Nov. 10. Tickets from $25. Resilience Theater at George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas. 713-315-2599. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.