“Once angered, the serpent will not rest until its venom flows in the enemy’s blood,” roars Sesto, a pivotal character in George Frederic Handel’s opera seria, Julius Caesar, now being performed by The Atlanta Opera at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (through November 14). Sesto roars and roars about venom because he’s rather upset, and rightly so. You see, Caesar’s rival, Pompeo, is Sesto’s father. And Pompeo has just been executed by the Egyptian king, Tolomeo.
So, as any boy with vim and vigor back in old Roman times would, he vows revenge. While Caesar and Tolomeo’s sister, Cleopatra, fall in love, Sesto does what he sets out to do — he avenges his father’s death by dispatching Tolomeo with a knife to the throat. Sesto rejoices in his vengeance and his deep conviction that he did what was right. Alas, if only this production had had the same conviction as young Sesto, the show could be much more of a rousing success.
Granted, it’s the first time The Atlanta Opera has ever staged a Handel opera. It has been some time since the opera has had a full production at Cobb Energy — some 600-plus days since the last aria wafted from the stage. The pandemic wreaked havoc on Atlanta’s arts community as a whole and The Atlanta Opera was no stranger to the difficulties it caused. The opera did produce a handful of marvelous smaller works in a giant circus tent during the Covid shutdown. In fact, they were the only major opera company in North America to stage live productions during the pandemic crisis of 2020. So, undoubtedly, there are some cobwebs to clear out and some proverbial dust to beat out of the red carpet in returning to large productions. Unfortunately, Julius Caesar is a rare misfire for this cutting-edge and creative company.
The Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulan, and stage director of this particular production, stated that he wanted to create a visual world with a nod towards the time of the Romans but mythologize it with today’s cinematic sensibilities. Think Game of Thrones. Think The Lord of the Rings. This idea lacks cohesion. Most of the characters are in straight up Roman and Egyptian garb. Some look like cast members from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. A couple have skulls hanging off their shoulders like they’re Skeletor’s henchmen from He-Man. The artistic team should have picked one theme and leaned into it. Additionally, if the opera is supposed to have Game of Thrones vibes, where is the onstage violence? The red gore? The dark sensuality?
The choreography, done by Tony-nominated Donald Byrd, is mostly emotionally impactful and beautiful. Instead of having the actors fight on stage, they dance to wonderful effect to Handel’s lovely music. But then, awkwardly, there are moments that feel like it’s a happy wild rumpus.
Unfortunately, the love affair between Caesar and Cleopatra seems almost an afterthought, leaving their supposed quest for power and their deep love for each other simply unbelievable. No song or two performers can save two characters with no chemistry. Soprano Jasmine Habersham, playing Cleopatra, has a stunning voice and received the most applause on opening night. Habersham is a native of Macon who has performed with the Seattle Opera, Cincinnati Opera and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, among others. She’s wonderful, but as she sings “Unless heaven takes pity on me, I will die,” we are left with questions as to why she’s feeling that way at all; up until that point, we haven’t seen any sort of real passion burning between her and Julius Caesar.
Caesar is played by mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman, making her debut with The Atlanta Opera. She showed an expansive range and rich voice. Julius Caesar, however, was God-like. He had stature. He demanded respect. He was feared. Rapturous attention was paid to him. The program notes state that “Julius Caesar is a colossus . . . He is larger than life.” We’re still talking about him to this day. Yet in the production, Caesar is simply pompous and preening, chest puffy and pretentious.
Put together, Cleopatra and Caesar sing beautifully with no beauty between them. There is no reason to believe they love each other because we haven’t seen them love each other the entire show.
Renee Tatum, a mezzo-soprano who plays Sesto’s mother, Cornelia, is stunning. Daniel Moody, in his Atlanta Opera debut as Tolomeo, is effective and ebullient, though there’s a distinct Disney villain vibe in his portrayal. Megan Marino, as Sesto, is deserving of bigger spotlights and the orchestra, under the baton of Gary Thor Wedow, was magical.
It’s wonderful to sit in a theater again to see art live. Just the orchestra warming up for the overture brought chills. It’s been a long time coming for live opera in Atlanta again. It’s a triumph to do it all again as, hopefully, Covid falls back into our past. There are some kinks that need to be worked out in this production. Luckily, there’s a whole Atlanta Opera season before us. Like Sesto sings in scene five: “Hope is the only thing that keeps us alive.” Here’s to living.
Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Hapeville. His writing has appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine and Earth Island Journal.