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Opera Theater makes Handel's 'Julius Caesar' its own

| Wednesday, July 13, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Opera Theater Summerfest's production of 'Julius Caesar' stars Andrey Nemzer as Julius Caesar, Lara Lynn McGill as Cleopatra, Zachary Wood as Ptolemy's servant and Min Sang Kim as Ptolemy.
Mark Abramowitz
Opera Theater Summerfest's production of 'Julius Caesar' stars Andrey Nemzer as Julius Caesar, Lara Lynn McGill as Cleopatra, Zachary Wood as Ptolemy's servant and Min Sang Kim as Ptolemy.

The rediscovery of baroque opera a half-century ago, after more than two centuries of neglect, has brought many and varied masterpieces to light. None shines more brightly or is more frequently performed in our time than George Frideric Handel's “Julius Caesar,” which New York City Opera revived in 1966.

Handel is best known for his oratorio “Messiah.” But the German-born composer made his name and became the dominant composer in 18th-century London writing Italian opera.

Opera Theater's SummerFest will present Handel's “Julius Caesar” on July 15, 17 and 23 at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside.

Handel's “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” (“Julius Caesar in Egypt”), to give its full title, was first performed in 1724 in London, about one of the best-known tales of antiquity. Caesar comes to Egypt to negotiate a truce with his rival Pompey, but finds himself presented with Pompey's decapitated head given in tribute by King Ptolemy. Disgusted, he is drawn into the sibling royal rivalry between Ptolemy and Cleopatra

SummerFest's conductor, Walter Morales, knew only a few arias from “Julius Caesar” before he began the six-month process of preparing the production. Now he's a fan.

“The opera definitely has the vitality of Handel's dance music. There's also a wonderful poignancy in the characterizations of Cleopatra's and Julius Caesar's music,” he says. “But then, all the music has been cut to suit each of the characters. Every piece of music in this opera is a masterpiece, a miniature masterpiece..”

Countertenor Andrey Nemzer, who plays Caesar, is the cast member most familiar with the opera because he learned as the understudy for David Daniels when the Metropolitan Opera in New York City staged it in 2013.

“It looks like this role is challenging, but it's not really difficult for me. It's very comfortable for my voice in terms of tessitura and the way (the) coloratura lays,” he says.

But he also loves the role because he likes to play noble people or heroic parts.

Soprano Lara Lynn McGill has been having an “exciting adventure” preparing to sing Cleopatra. She previously starred under her maiden name Cottrill in “A New Kind of Fallout” and “The Tales of Hofmann” with SummerFest and sang Barbarina in Pittsburgh Opera's “The Marriage of Figaro.”

“I feel I can express my feelings honestly,” she says. “There's enough coloratura to be showy and angry, but also some slow pretty music which is my favorite. I also like that Cleopatra can be funny.”

SummerFest created its own edition of the opera starting from the English National Opera in London's already trimmed 1984 production, which also provided the translation.

Stage director Dan Rigazzi says company artistic director Jonathan Eaton “wanted to be sure we had the swiftest, most direct version of the plot we could come up with.”

Rigazzi, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate who has been on the directing staff at the Metropolitan Opera for the past nine years, felt well-prepared for the editing challenges.

“Handel's opera is plot heavy,” he says. “Trimming some of the subplots is the way to go if you want to keep the Caesar and Cleopatra plot intact.”

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or

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