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Originally published February 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 26, 2007 at 11:06 AM

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Concert review

Hail Caesar: Contralto reigns gloriously

She came; she sang; she conquered. Ewa Podles´, a contralto of amazing power and agility, took command of the title role in Handel's...

Seattle Times music critic

She came; she sang; she conquered.

Ewa Podles´, a contralto of amazing power and agility, took command of the title role in Handel's "Julius Caesar" the way Caesar himself took command of his legions. From Podles´' opening aria to the triumphant conclusion, she poured on the powerful high notes, low notes and all the notes in between, singing the convoluted coloratura passages with unstinting accuracy and a real feeling for the words as well as the music. Podles´ soared up into soprano territory, and she downshifted into low gear, displaying astonishing deep tones that would do credit to a baritone.

The Polish contralto is no stranger to Seattle Opera audiences, but never before have we had a chance to see and hear what this great singer can do when she chews up the scenery, the libretto and the score as she did on Saturday night.

But there was more, much more, to admire in this production directed by Robin Guarino and conducted by Gary Thor Wedow. Top players in Seattle's early-music community have joined Seattle Symphony members in an orchestra with a supple, luminous continuo — accompanying the singers in instruments that sound so right in this repertoire. Making major contributions are Stephen Stubbs (theorbo/lute), Margriet Tindemans (viola da gamba), Maxine Eilander (baroque harp) and Philip Kelsey (harpsichord, along with Wedow), among many others.

Review


Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, McCaw Hall

There really isn't a single weak spot in the cast. Alexandra Deshorties' Cleopatra is Podles´ full equal, a singing actress of terrific impact in a role that allows her a wide emotional span: imperious queen, woman in love and the despairing captive of her conniving brother Tolomeo (countertenor Brian Asawa, in top form both vocally and dramatically). Helene Schneiderman's tragic, dignified Cornelia was at the opera's emotional center, never more affectingly than in her farewell duet with Kristine Jepson's first-rate Sesto. Arthur Woodley was powerful in every way as Achilla; David Korn and Joseph Rawley were effective as Nireno and Curio, respectively.

Handel's glorious music — one lovely aria after another — poses a challenge to directors, because these great and lengthy display pieces can seem static. Guarino's staging kept the action natural and clearly motivated; scenes of conflict were particularly well done.

Donald Byrd's choreography is nothing less than brilliant, opening with extremely stylish skirmishes between Caesar's Romans and the rival Egyptians. The dance sequences are an important and integral part of the production, never something that appear "tacked on." The Paul Steinberg modernist sets and Constance Hoffman mixed-period costumes (borrowed from Florida Grand Opera) are hit-and-miss, the former offering technicolor pyramids and pillars, and the latter providing slinky dresses for Cleopatra but an awkward-looking, bulky gold coat for Caesar.

Now playing

Handel's "Julius Caesar," Seattle Opera with Gary Thor Wedow conducting, through March 10, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center; $41-$135 (206-389-7676 or www.seattleopera.org).

The lighting design of Robert Wierzel makes the most of the dramatic opportunities afforded by the sets.

Sunday's alternate cast gave a new spin to the production, with many singers making company debuts — like Anna Burford, a subtle Caesar with a winning stage presence, and Gloria Parker, an affecting Cornelia. As Cleopatra, Christine Brandes brought a beautiful voice and a thrilling command of baroque-era style to the role; Carolyn Kahl was a dashing, urgent Sesto. Mark Crayton's Tolomeo was uneven, in terms of vocal focus and clarity.

No, this isn't "Carmen" or "La Boheme" — but give it a try anyway. What a treat to be steeped in this gorgeous score by performers who really know how to gild the Handelian lily.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

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