With her goofy jack-o’lantern grin, mamma mia! gestures, and industrial-strength sandals, the mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman’s Julius Caesar might have marched in off the set of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. Then she opens her mouth, and she blows you away. When did we last hear an instrument so bold and brassy in tone, with such gutsy yet free and easy use of the low notes? Like Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, I pause for a reply.
Freeman is but one of the astonishments of the Atlanta Opera’s Julius Caesar, filmed live last November. As Cleopatra, the soprano Jasmine Habersham summons her inner Beyoncé, tossing off filigree roulades, her features framed by a big-radius Afrofuturist gloriole of teased hair. As the proud, racist Roman widow Cornelia, a second mezzo, Renée Tatum, revels as Freedman does in plush low notes—and like Freedman, she blessedly refrains from blasting them to Kingdom come. Cornelia’s son Sesto, obsessed with avenging his father’s murder, is yet another mezzo-soprano, the lithe, petite Megan Marino, a rapier to Tatum’s broadsword.
The production is masterminded by Tomer Zvulun, the company’s Harvard Business School-alum general and artistic director. After a string of shows in the open air, with masks and social distancing, Handel’s riff on ancient history marked the company’s homecoming to the great indoors of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Video from the theater, needlessly intercut with flossy B-roll shot al fresco, shows an ensemble raring to go.
The vibe of the show—let’s not throw around snooty terms like aesthetic—is populist, glitzy, Carnival in Rio. Think sequins. Shredded gym rats flash a lot of skin in martial-arts and Zumba routines. The bare look extends to several principals, not invariably to their advantage. A revolving pyramid with an interior staircase affords plentiful opportunities for asserting dominance, which, in a nutshell, is what the action is all about. Opera, elitist? Not this time. In Atlanta, Julius Caesar moves with a swagger that makes more fastidious realizations seem embalmed.
Like the stagecraft, Gary Thor Wedow’s damn-the-torpedoes musical direction goes helter-skelter here and there. But the vibrancy of it all is something to treasure, especially from that moblet of mezzos. In much the same register, the capable countertenor Daniel Moody plays the boy king Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s brother; too bad about that gold-spangled sarong, the headdress that won’t stay straight, and his habit of mugging. As Achilla, Tolomeo’s Roman rival for the haughty Cornelia, the butch David Crawford scores simply by virtue of the punchy bass-baritone he handles with such gusto. And his Game of Thrones armor blows everyone else’s costumes out of the water—except, luckily for her, Cleopatra’s.
Julius Caesar is available for streaming on the Atlanta Opera Spotlight Media Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii