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Polish singer Ewa Podles as Julius Caesar
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Gender-bending arias and so much more
By Denise Gibbs
To learn more about Denise Gibbs, click

This story originally ran on March 6, 2007, in "The Jibsheet," the official student newspaper of Bellevue Community College.

Posted March 8, 2007






     Julius Caesar is not your typical opera. First performed in London at King’s Theatre in 1724, George Frideric Handel’s Baroque opera very much represented the cosmopolitan nature of the eighteenth century. In it, many of the male parts are sung by women and some of the men sing in women’s range (counter-tenors and male sopranos).

     The reason for this was in Handel’s time when he was composing, the leading roles were give to sopranos and castrati. In 1550 a brutal practice of castrating young boys in the hope that they would be great singers was begun. This went on for the next 250 years because an adult castrato was very popular and had what many believed to be an awe-inspiring voice that supposedly had the strength of a man coupled with the range, elasticity and tonality of a woman. Since this practice is no fortunately not longer done these roles are now filled by women singing mezzo-soprano (alto) or contralto (very low) and men who sing male soprano or countertenor.

     For this production, Caesar is played by famed Polish contralto, Ewa Podles`. Seattle Opera’s General Director Speight Jenkins chose to this opera because of seeing Podles` perform the leading role for the Canadian Opera Company.

     “Ms. Podles was amazing,” said Jenkins in the production notes. “It was a very theatrical as well as an intensely musically enriching experience.”

     Podles played the role with much strength though the shiny space suit-like costume took away from her performance as also her interpretation of the arias. Considered to be one of those difficult operas to sing with brutal runs on one breath, Podles` seemed to lack smoothness in voice and body posture.

     Alexandra Deshorties was the stand-out performer of the evening in the role of Cleopatra, Caesar’s love interest. Deshorties was brilliant and beautiful as the Queen of Egypt. Her opening costume was magnificent but unfortunately went down hill the rest of the evening with each costume change. Though Deshorties voice made up for any costuming downfalls. The highlight of the evening was the aria she sung to woo Caesar’s heart. Deshorties, behind a flossy scrim sings to the gods while seemingly suspended above the stage and plucking the rays of the sun god. Not only was the scene spectacular to look at, Deshorties voice filled McCaw Hall with her luminously powerful yet lilting voice. That scene alone seemed to take the audiences breath away.

     Japanese-American countertenor Brian Asawa plays the villain of the story, Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s brother and rival. Tolomeo’s voice was the not the strongest and his interpretation of Tolomeo seemed flamboyant and bisexual. In a gender bending opera it just made things more confusing. Though his interpretation made you despise Tolomeo even more for raping the widow character of Cornelia, whose husband Tolomeo had decapitated, imprisoning his sister Cleopatra, on top of trying to murder the Emperor Caesar all the while sounding like a woman who prefers the company of both men and women.

     Though many of the costumes seemed plain and were in need of more embellishment the scenery, voices and Baroque instruments and music more than made up for it.

     The first scene when the curtain opened seemed juvenile with two giant pyramids painted in primary colors that looked to be out of a nursery rhyme all the while squishing the performers into a small space on stage. But the rest of the night’s scenery and lighting were utterly breathtaking. The use of eight or so small pyramids which were wheeled around stage by the Roman soldiers and Egyptian thugs were dramatically lit throughout the evening from many different directions and angles. The scene where Cleopatra is in prison was very memorable as the pyramids were bathed in white light which reflected off the glossy black floor turning the pyramids into diamonds. It contrasted so differently from the opening scene it seemed to be two different operas.

     Julius Caesar runs until March 10 at McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center with both matinee and evening performances. Tickets start at $41. For more information go to:




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