It’s not that the company has become any kind of specialist in the genre; still, baroque opera seems to flourish under a benign star at the Los Angeles Opera. Each of its forays into that repertory, furthermore, has unearthed new and original ways to strip away the detritus of age and present these works — three by Handel so far, and one by Monteverdi — in a manner both respectful and vivid.
Surely the company’s current “Giulio Cesare,” in a production from Opera Australia, strays some distance from what Handel’s audiences might have witnessed in 1724. Anthony Baker’s designs are all over the map: Cleopatra in a ball gown that might have passed muster at the Grammys; Caesar’s booted legions done up like Cossack headwaiters; a stage set of movable slabs like some gigantic Legos. At one point Cleopatra strips down to the altogether (decorously, of course) and steps down into her bath, kicks up a few suds, singing all the while. At another, Caesar and Cleopatra abandon the stage altogether and bring their passions closer at hand, on a runway fronting the orchestra pit.
What holds it all together, during the four-hour span that seems like mere minutes, is the high musical quality of the venture, which honors the shape of Handel’s designs and the vitality as well. Britain’s Harry Bicket, known for several recordings of early music, draws a beautifully balanced performance from a much-reduced L.A. Opera Orchestra.
Much has been made of the casting of three countertenors in leading roles, possibly to invoke memories of three other tenors in drastically other music. No such invocation is necessary; it’s more to the point that the operatic world happens to be graced these days with excellent exponents of Handel’s surging, heroic music for male characters with high voices.
David Daniels is the burly Caesar, buzz-cut and sporting a Don Johnson growth of beard, somewhat soft of voice for a 3,000-plus-seat auditorium if truth be told, but remarkable for the sensitivity and pure beauty of his singing. Bejun Mehta (cousin to Zubin several degrees removed) is the villainous Ptolemy, his icy-pure singing cutting through Handel’s orchestra like an extension of the sword he artfully wields. In the smaller role of the weasly go-between Nirenus, David Walker manages a delightful and compelling squeak.
And then there is Elizabeth Futral’s Cleopatra, on an even higher level than any of the above. She was the Stella in Andre Previn’s hapless “Streetcar Named Desire” at the San Francisco Opera, and an enchanting Violetta last season in a “Traviata” at Orange County’s Opera Pacific. Her Cleopatra — voice radiantly pure over a phenomenal range, acrobatic coloratura immaculately dispatched — proclaims her an artist with no discernible horizons.
Regarded not long ago as dry-as-dust fodder for specialists, or fair game for the rewrite crew, Handel’s operas now edge their way into the playlist of most major companies in the U.S. and abroad. This “Julius Caesar,” with its wondrous blend of authenticity and adventure, is yet another step in exactly the right direction.