Astral Works

Seattle opera stars align.

Thanks to some odd astral alignment, Seattle Opera's current staging of Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of four local Baroque opera productions this spring. It was preceded last month by Early Music Guild's Coronation of Poppea and will be followed by Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at both Cornish College (this month) and the University of Washington (in May). All four choices play to the organizations' strengths. Poppea—in which Claudio Monteverdi married words and music with a flexibility and nuance that have been perhaps equaled but never surpassed in nearly 400 years—was performed in the intimate Intiman, in which every vocal sigh and instrumental half-light spoke. Purcell's show actually was made for a school—an hour-long piece, just this side of a vaudeville, containing everything from sailors' dances to a full-on diva turn.

By Handel's day, the star system was in full flourish; Giulio Cesare was tailored to provide displays of vocal fireworks for a cast full of celebrated virtuosi. But works this formally stylized—30 or so solo arias like pearls on a string, with only one brief ensemble at the end—risk turning into mere recitals in costume. Seattle Opera's production, thanks to director Robin Guarino, makes vivid the dramatic conflicts that fuel the emotional flights in the arias.

Veteran powerhouse Ewa Podles gives her all to every note in the title role: Her high ones soar, but it's her excursions down into baritone territory that really make you sit up. To her usual stage-ruling imperiousness she adds nobility, charm, and wit. The role of Cornelia, who sings little besides weepy laments (I lost count at four), could be a yawn if performed by a less elegant and subtle artist than Helene Schneiderman. The villainous Achilla proves a breakout role for stentorian bass Arthur Woodley, heating up the stage after a decade of smaller parts in SO productions. Just as impressive is the small orchestra, which is mostly drawn from the Seattle Symphony with well-known Baroque specialists like Stephen Stubbs and Margriet Tindemans added on theorbo and gamba. They formed a group as good as I've ever heard in the McCaw Hall pit.

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