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Blog Post: Notes from the Director and Conductor of Julius Caesar

A Note from the Director

by Elkhanah Pulitzer

What a joy it is to return to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and what a thrill to share this new production of Julius Caesar. Ever since James Robinson and Andrew Jorgensen invited me to bring my years of research and understanding of the lives of these irresistible lovers to focus on Handel’s version, Maestro Candillari and I have marveled at the breadth and richness of this work. Together we wrestle with it, mine it for gems, and work to streamline it to allow us all time to share in reflecting on the work. For me and many others, discourse in the Opera Theatre tents after the last note is a rich part of those reflections.

Daniela and I have spent months getting to know the full opera intimately, listening to various versions with differing scene cuts. Our own conclusions about what feels crucial are very similar to those who have approached this work in the past. We know we want to preserve the beauty and arc of the characters and remain faithful to their journeys of discovery. We also want a story that feels inevitable and well-paced, that moves forward with momentum while giving space for the vastness of Handel’s emotional expressivity. We want to avoid some of the late-breaking twists and turns near the end and give priority to the leading lovers above all others. Paramount to us both is the need to give Cleopatra the full range of expression for her “infinite variety” while also affirming her liberation in her loving union with Caesar. We achieve this by removing some of the doubt and obfuscation between the lovers in Handel’s middle act.

This piece stands the test of time because of its beauty, depth, and rich complexity of psychological themes, which resonate with our own inner lives. The transformative force of love, the brutality of power wielded with malice, the courage to overthrow tyranny, as well as the deep valleys of loss and healing we all experience as humans, make it universal. We need leaders like Handel’s interpretations of Caesar and Cleopatra, characters who contemplate their own mortality with humility and grace, surrender to vulnerability in love, exhibit sobriety and courage, and ultimately fight for justice in the face of monstrous acts. We need leaders to show us our own capacity for transformation, redemption, and purpose. We need stories that make space for rulers and lovers — fallible humans still — who can co-create a new world fashioned with more tolerance, understanding, and love. Although we know how things end for these two lovers in history, we can take the best of them with us to live on in how we deal with the world outside.

A Note from the Conductor

by Daniela Candillari

When Andrew Jorgensen and James Robinson first asked me which opera I wanted to conduct in the 2024 Festival Season, my immediate answer was Julius Caesar. I have long been fascinated with the level of intimacy that Baroque operas offer. Although some criticize its most common aria form, da capo, as nothing more than a vehicle for display of vocal abilities, I find that it’s precisely this strict structure that gives room for improvisation and personalization of the characters.

When Julius Caesar premiered in London in 1724, it was an instant success. During Handel’s life, the opera was produced three more times, totaling four possible versions. Each time the opera was revived with Handel present, he was open to making small changes and adjustments. Sometimes those changes were purely practical…for example, accommodating singers’ schedules or changing the male role of Nirenus to a female role named Nirena. Learning about how flexible (in certain instances) Handel was with his music was a wonderful guide in exploring what our production could become.

The flexibility of interpretation can also be heard in different stylistic choices. Minimal interpretations can be quite traditional in their shape of recitatives, sometimes played only by a harpsichord and theorbo, while extremely lavish, ornamental ones have the potential of sounding romantic and almost impressionistic. While preparing the opera, I found invaluable guidance and inspiration in the work of the late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who I had the chance of hearing often when I was a student in Austria, as well as more recent performances led by Jane Glover and Harry Bicket. Harnoncourt’s reading of the score, though played by a baroque orchestra, was especially illuminating in finding different orchestral colors that could be used to express various dramatic layers and offer a variety of textures. When dealing with a translation, one also needs to marry the articulation of the music to the speech rhetoric. That aspect alone can stimulate a change in how we hear a piece of music!

From the beginning of our conversations about the piece and what we wanted to convey with the story, Elkhanah Pulitzer and I were focused on keeping the musical and dramatic momentum moving ahead. We wanted to give each of the characters a chance to show the different layers of their emotions and circumstances, making them feel like real people that we could encounter today, instead of historic figures that we only see from a distance.

Get your tickets for Julius Caesar (June 9 – 28) today!

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Major production support comes from Roy Pfautch. Julius Caesar is underwritten by Roma B. Wittcoff.

Daniela Candillari’s engagement is made possible with generous support from Kim & Tim Eberlein.