Reviewed by Judy Richter
The San Francisco Opera fielded a dream cast for its 2001-02 season-ending production of George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare. Soprano Ruth Ann Swenson and countertenor David Daniels starred in the title roles, but other principals were no less stellar: mezzo-soprano Felicity Palmer as Cornelia, mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose as Sesto (Sextus) and countertenor Bejun Mehta as Tolomeo (Ptolemy).
Backing them were more outstanding singers: bass John Ames as Curio (Curius), bass Denis Sedov as Achilla (Achillas) and countertenor Daniel Taylor as Nireno (Nirenus). They and the fine SFO Orchestra were conducted from the harpsichord by Nicholas McGegan, musical director of San Francisco's famed Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. They all contributed to an exceptionally refined musical performance.
Swenson, a longtime favorite of SFO audiences, is always a huge draw and for good reason: Her voice is crystalline throughout its range with good breath control and dynamic shading. Her technique is flawless and seemingly effortless with clean, well defined runs and tasteful ornamentation. She also has thrilling high notes. Moreover, she has strong stage presence and conveys emotions well, but her overall joy of singing often seems paramount. She was at the peak of her form as Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen who evolves from mere coquette to mature woman as she falls in love with Rome's Julius Caesar and battles the treachery of Ptolemy, her co-ruler and younger brother.
She was well matched with Daniels as Caesar and blended well with him in one of the only two duets in the opera. Daniels' fine technique and strong, vibrant voice served him well as the noble Caesar, who falls in love with Cleopatra when she's disguised as a serving woman. One must make special note of his Act I aria, Va tacito e nascosto, when he was accompanied by a horn obbligato performed by the orchestra's William Klingelhoffer. The other two countertenors, Mehta as Ptolemy and Taylor as Nirenus, Cleopatra's loyal servant, also distinguished themselves in this Baroque masterpiece with its libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym after an earlier libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani. Likewise, Palmer as Cornelia, widow of the slain Pompey; and Donose as Sextus, her son, were dramatically and vocally effective. They also blended well in the opera's other duet.
The production is by John Copley with handsome sets by John Pascoe, gorgeous costumes by Michael Stennett and lighting by Thomas J. Munn. Lawrence Pech was the movement choreographer. Ian Robertson's SFO chorus' role was small but noteworthy in this memorable, thrilling production.
For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.