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More than 30 years in the making and remaking, Lou Harrison’s elusive music theatre opus about the adolescent Julius Caesar’s affair with King Nicomedes of Bithynia must have seemed daring, if unwieldy when it hit the boards in 1971 as the first gay puppet opera. Yet, all the revisions made by the late California composer for an aborted Lincoln Center Festival production have not yielded, in the premiere production by San Francisco’s Ensemble Parallèle, a satisfactory operatic experience. The puppets are gone, but the mélange of theatrical styles never coheres into the innovative musical narrative one had hoped.
Nevertheless, this musically most flavourful version of the piece revels in all of its creator’s stylistic passions. Harrison’s fascination with Cantonese opera, Balinese gamelan, homemade instruments, pure tuning and pentatonic scales generates sonorities that ravish the ear. The seven arias and duets added in the 1990s soar in the composer’s most uninhibitedly sensuous manner. What comes between them is often irksome. The narration, notated, but without rhythmic indications, has been abridged, but it still lends an intolerable measure of artificiality.
The principal problem mitigated success from the opera’s genesis: Robert Gordon’s libretto, the source of much dissension throughout the work’s checkered history, mingles arch rhetorical flights with banal plain speech (”For heaven’s sake, Gaius, relax”), that demystifies a legend in a risible manner. Brian Staufenbiel’s cluttered production can’t mine tension from a dilatory first act. He encases the chorus in masks and black shrouds, and, in a failed attempt at ritual, marches them around the stage. He depends on lighting and mobile gauze screens to conjure atmosphere and he misinterprets the opera’s tone. When Nicomedes’s drama queen prances on stage in Wonder Woman get-up, and cuddles with his lover under a scarlet blanket, eroticism degenerates into camp.
Still, Eugene Brancoveanu’s stalwart baritone delivered the role handsomely, and Eleazar Rodriguez’s lyric tenor served Caesar exquisitely. Nicole Paiement brought fervor to her conducting, but the percussion-heavy orchestra did not penetrate to the heart of Harrison’s complex rhythmic universe. Young Caesar awaits its genuine rebirth.
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