Peabody Chamber Opera's 'Giulio Cesare' at Theatre Project


f you have a chance to catch Peabody Chamber Opera's presentation of Handel's "Giulio Cesare in Egitto" at Theatre Project --


-- take it.

Peabody doesn't produce baroque operas every day, and the other local companies that used to dip into this repertoire have folded up their tents. UPDATE: As readers have pointed out, the observation about Peabody and baroque opera is not quite legit. In my carelessness, I think I got a wee bit confused. It is fair, I think, to say that the conservatory has not put much focus on Handel operas. But I will be promptly set right, if I am off on that point, too.

This is one of Handel's greatest scores, filled with colorful, richly expressive arias. Within the rigid structures of baroque opera, the aria-after-aria progression, the composer proved wonderfully creative.

All the while, he revealed something meaningful about the characters and their relationships. This is not a case of mere vocal show.

This opera has a good story, too, of course. Director Timothy Nelson has put a provocative contemporary spin on it, from the "Mission Accomplished" sign to assorted acts of torture. This is not exactly Handel's Middle East, but he would still recognize the place and the issues as Caesar and Cleopatra find love and danger.

I'm not convinced by all of Nelson's ideas (in a program note, he writes that ...

some elements here provide an homage to 1981 "Giulio Cesare" production by his friend and mentor Peter Sellars).

But things that strike me as a little, well, precious, such as the imitation handguns (characters point fingers at each other), are balanced by many a deft touch. One example is the handing of photos to Caesar to provide evidence of Pompey's beheading.

In the end, things fit together to form a cohesive, thought-provoking package. Nelson's all-white design for the staging completes the picture effectively.

The cast doesn't sound as vocally sturdy or developed as those in some Peabody ventures (Italian pronunciation varies widely, too)l, but the singers get the job done and are finely tuned into Nelson's concept.

Countertenor Daniel Moody, as Caesar, does impressive work. The timbre could use more bloom, but it has obvious potential, and the singer's phrasing is admirably eloquent throughout. Julie Bosworth, as Cleopatra, is sometimes pressed to her limit by the dramatic flourishes, but otherwise shapes the music, especially "Piangero la sorte mia," a sublime example of Handelian beauty, with a good deal of character.

Janna Critz (Cornelia) and Elizabeth Merrill (Sesto) contribute some of the production's most vivid vocalism. There is sensitive supporting work from Kerry Holohan (Tolomeo), Matthew Sullivan (Achilla) and Megan Ihnen (Nireno).

The Baltimore Baroque Band, led by Adam Pearl, can be rough in tone, but rises to the challenges to provide a dynamic element in this ambitious and welcome production.