Opera Canada Review of Giulio Cesare and Die Zauberflote

Opera Canada, Winter 2007-2008

Halifax Summer Opera Workshop
Giulio Cesare In Egitto, by Handel; Die Zauberflote by Mozart

Both Giulio Cesare in Egitto and Die Zauberflote as performed by the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop were engaging, provocative and politically incorrect. The performances also featured some remarkable singing.

Since 2004, Halifax Summer Opera Workshop has enabled talented young singers, mostly students, to perform an entire opera. This year it offered four performances (August 10th to 19th) of each double-cast opera. The program bios numbered over forty singers.

Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, sung in Italian with English side-titles, was staged as a modern story of terrorism and brutality. The “bad guys” in this opera are all Egyptians and, apart from Cleopatra, dressed in battle garb with Arab or Palestinian headgear.  This may have been less tendentious if not for the ghastly moment of presenting Pompey’s head to Cesare: the soldiers bring onstage a TV screen showing an imminent jihadist beheading.  While making the opera more contemporary, it was exceedingly uncomfortable.

On the night reviewed, the roles of Giulio Cesare and Sesto were performed by women. Mezzo-soprano Vivien Shotwell, was energetic and manly as Cesare and convincingly fell in love with the irresistible Cleopatra. Sesto was performed by talented soprano Catherine Gingrich.

The more complex roles of Cornelia and Cleopatra provided dramatic opportunity which was well attained. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lang, a much abused Cornelia with a rich voice, remained a proud Roman throughout. Soprano Melissa Solomon, a blonde Cleopatra, delightfully conveyed the dramatic variety in her role: a proud vain power seeker, a vivacious seductress and a defeated prisoner.

Cleopatra’s brother and rival Tolomeo, bass-baritone Greg Wagland, appeared at first to be a bumbling fool with little aptitude for evil but as the opera progressed so did his villainy and his musical capacity. Music director and pianist, Keith Chambers supported the performers flawlessly and the beauty of Handel’s music was honorably conveyed.

Mozart’s Die Zauberflote was no less controversial, no less impressive. The performance was sometimes brilliant, often hilarious and always pleasurable. Sung in German with English side-titles, the spoken dialogue was also in English.  The text and the translation were provided by writer David Mosey, who took full advantage of poetic license. The result could be described as Monty Python meets The Magic Flute and the surprised audience often roared with laughter.

Outstanding among the singers in the final performance of the workshop, were Catie Shelley as Queen of the Night, Christopher Mallory as Sarastro and Stuart Hiseler as Papageno.  David Manford, as Tamino, and Lauren Onsrud, as Pamina, were clueless, starry-eyed lovers, convincingly innocent and equally sweet, as the insanity around them proceeded. Kara Morris, Charlotte Knight and Marta Herman, depicted as Charlie’s Angels, sang superbly. Andrew Pelrine as Monostatos was appropriately vile and shifty.

Tara Scott, music director and pianist, provided magnificent accompaniment.

Nina Scott-Stoddart and Gisela O’Brien, the directors of the two operas are commended for their brave creativity and ability to showcase such a plethora of emerging talent.

Daphna Levit