Saturday, February 17, 2007

Lou Harrison's "Young Caesar"

The world premiere of a homoerotic, Asian-infused opera about the teenaged Julius Caesar by the recently deceased California composer Lou Harrison took place on Friday evening at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and it was quite a show.

The piece has a long and troubled history, starting with its original incarnation as a puppet play for five singers and a narrator in 1971, its revision for a male chorus and Western orchestra for the Portland Gay Men's Chorus in the late 1980s, and this final version that Harrison was fiddling with up to his death, which is a conglomeration of the two earlier incarnations along with additional arias written for the main characters.

There was an attempt at a fancy world premiere production at Lincoln Center about six years ago with the choreographer Mark Morris and conductor Dennis Russell Davies involved, but the project collapsed for reasons that nobody is explicating publicly.

The opera was finally midwifed by a brilliant conductor, Nicole Palement, who works out of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and UC Santa Cruz. She led a young, dazzling, exceptionally good-looking orchestra called the "Ensemble Parallele" in the pit (click here for their website). Among many riches, they were the highlight of the evening.

The piece really is like no other, being some weird mix of Cantonese opera, Indonesian gamelan, Western operatic crooning, and just plain Lou Harrison who is a great composer.

The production was anchored by the Narrator, played by one of the Bay Area's greatest musical and theatrical treasures, the character tenor John Duykers, who created the role of Chairman Mao in Adams' "Nixon in China," among other innumerable accomplishments. His role was part speaking, part sprechstimme, and part outright arioso and he was perfection in all of them.

The main role of Young Caesar was played by a Mexican student tenor, Eleazar Rodriguez, whose beautiful voice was a pleasure all evening, though he was more convincing as a tentative teenager than as an incipient general. The 20-member male chorus was also wonderful as they were asked to sing some very complex polyphony all the while performing as stagehands, supernumeraries, and dancers. Their efforts were marred only by their ridiculous costumes and whiteface makeup which made them look not so much "Eastern" as like robot extras from Woody Allen's "Sleeper."

This brings us to the major problem with the opera, which is that the libretto by local San Francisco playwright Robert Gordon is just plain terrible, which is probably why the Lincoln Center production collapsed.

Gordon (above) may be a good playwright for all I know, but the leaden, flat-flooted libretto he has fashioned for "Young Caesar" doesn't have a decent poetic moment in the entire thing, which made for some unintentionally funny moments.

The other major miscue of the evening was the sabotage of baritone Eugene Brancoveanu's performance as Caesar's older lover, King Nicomedes, by the wig designer and the costume designer who I won't name. That's Eugene above in his second outfit, which is butch compared to the diaphanous pink creation in which he enters at the beginning of Act Two. As Steven Matchett next to me pointed out, "He looks like Mae West trying to dress up as Wonder Woman."

The first act was nicely staged with lots of moving screens by a UC Santa Cruz director and singer named Brian Staufenbiel. The opera meanders amiably all over the place, introducing Caesar's political aunt Julia, who gets rid of one wealthy proposed wife and sets him up with the rich, pretty and well-connected Cornelia with whom Caesar has a child.

Act Two is set entirely in Bithynia (Turkey) where Caesar meets and falls in love with King Nicomedes, who for some reason looks like a drag queen from outer space. When the fine choreographer Lawrence Pech danced a near-naked pas de deux with the equally attractive Peter Brandenhoff, while the butch-but-in-drag Brancoveanu sang to his sweet little Mexican tenor dressed in a sheer white teddy, I think it may have been one of the faggiest moments, if you'll pardon the expression, I've seen onstage in my life. (The scene is supposed to be sexy, people, not ludicrous.) In any case, I can't wait for the recording.


cookiecrumb said...

A-roo! Howl!
How do you know what you know? You crack me up.
Did you ever make the acquaintance of Stephanie von Buchau, who, tragically, died recently? (I had the privilege of editing her back in the 21st Century.) Her write-ups of performances always made me jealous that I hadn't been sitting in the seat next to her.
So do yours.

Civic Center said...

Dear cookiecrumb: What a sweet note. The two great classical music writers in the Bay Area over the last 30 years have been: 1} Bill Hyuck who used to write for the free gay rags which masked the fact that he was one of the great classical music writers in the world; somebody should do an online anthology of his essays; and 2) Stephanie von Buchau, whose opinions I tended to disagree with violently, but she wasn't stupid and she had complete personal integrity; her battles with the little Austrian Nazi who ran the San Francisco Opera for decades, Kurt Herbert Adler, were classic.

Anonymous said...

What a great review. That last paragraph is golden.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I just posted about this (I was there on Friday as well) but I think I like your write-up better than mine.

Glad to hear there's going to be a recording. . . .

PWS said...

I'm eager to hear this too. The only Harrison opera I've heard is "Rupunzel", which is from his early, 12-tone days. I love Lou Harrison and his music, but it's a truly awful work in my opinion. It was only later that he found his voice.

Homoerotic opera premiering in San Francisco? You guys are sort of making it easy for Bill O'Reilly in company, you know.

Trevor Murphy said...

Really great review, Mike- I pasted that last paragraph into several IM windows, noting that this is how opera reviews should be. Very evocative picture of the pit, too, which looks like a percussion jungle.