Authentic in Acre

The Israeli Opera presents Handel’s ‘Julius Caesar in Egypt’

'Julius Caesar in Egypt' - Israel Opera (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
'Julius Caesar in Egypt' - Israel Opera
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
The ancient port city of Acre has seen its fair share of historical events over the centuries – close to three and a half millennia, to be more precise. The ramparts, cellars and timeworn halls have played host to Alexander the Great, Romans and Crusaders, to mention but a few of the temporary residents that have marauded their way through the Middle East, while the British used the local jail to incarcerate several leading Zionists, including Zeev Jabotinsky. So it seems perfectly natural for the Israeli Opera to put on a production of Handel’s Julius Caesar in Egypt, aka Giulio Cesare in Egitto, in Acre next month (August 3 and 5, both 8:30 p.m.).
“It is a timeless and universal opera,” says Tomer Zvulun, the director. “It is about power and intrigues, sex, love and violence and the will to live. It is basically a very contemporary opera.”
The storyline portrays the arrival of Julius Cesar in Egypt, where he quickly finds himself embroiled in a tangled power struggle between Cleopatra and her brother Tolomeo. Powerful forces are at play throughout the work, which is considered one of the greatest operas of the Baroque era.
That is a lot of juicy raw material for an opera director to sink his professional teeth into, and one could almost be forgiven for getting carried away with the emotion and fiery dynamics of the tale in question. But Zvulun says he never strays too far from the core of the work.
“I approach a story like this, first and foremost, with a lot of respect for the music,” he declares. “And what is really interesting about this production is that we are doing it in Acre. Acre is a classic and timeless place. The theater where the opera takes place is a 12th-century Crusader fortress. There is something very beautiful and ancient in the ceilings and the ancient stones and the stairs and the arches.”
That’s not a bad starting point for a director looking to put on an opera production based on events that took place just down the Mediterranean coastline.
“One of the first things we decided on was that the surroundings here are crucially important and, in fact, they are one of the main characters of the story,” Zvulun explains. “We realized we had to incorporate the location as a basic element of the story. So instead of trying to change the setting, we just took it all on board.”
Zvulun, who has been based in Atlanta, Georgia, for the past four years as general and artistic director of the local opera house, says he has been preparing for the production for quite some time, along with choreographer Donald Byrd and set and costume designers Alkexander Lisiyanski and Mattie Ullrich. “We have been working on this for two years,” he says.
Then again, you can work on the visual esthetics to your heart’s content for as long as you want, but at the end of the day this is an opera we are talking about, not a Shakespearean play.
“I work very closely with Ethan [Schmeisser] the maestro. Everything begins and ends with the music and the words,” Zvulun notes. “Everything you see in terms of the sets and lighting, the costumes and props, the wigs and the makeup, that is what we do, the directing team. Everything you see on the stage is our work, but the conductor is in charge of the music and the words. That is the core of the opera.”
Historical fact and operatic yarn spinning intertwine at Acre at a number of junctures.
“Julius Caesar passed through Acre in 47 BCE on his way to Egypt,” Zvulun notes. “There’s even a street here called Julius Caesar Street,” he adds with a laugh. “I wonder what he would have thought of having this opera here.”
But this is the 21st century, with its plethora of virtual domains and instant entertainment facilities. That, says Zvulun, also came into play when the team got down to planning the production.
“This is a very long opera. It lasts four and a half hours, but we are putting it on outside in the summer for a modern-day audience that is not always able to sit through a four and a half hour opera. Today people are used to catching a few minutes of something on their iPhone. So we have trimmed it down. The music itself lasts two hours – an hour for each act,” he says.
And there is a lot for the audience to take in.
“This is a very intricate and sophisticated work in terms of the relationships. There is a prominent psychological element to it,” he adds.
Overall, of course, opera goers want to be entertained and moved, and Zvulun says that all the professional pieces are in place for that to happen.
“We have a great cast – Yaniv d’Or in the role of Julius Caesar; Claire Meghnagi who sings Cleopatra; and Tolomeo is sung by a wonderful countertenor named Alon Harari. And there’s [mezzo-soprano] Anat Czarny, and [mezzo-soprano] Nitzan Alon sings Cornelia. This is a very special production,” Zvulun asserts.
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