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HARRISON: Young Caesar

MP3 Button 817 Maultsby, Kamareh; Fisher, Adams, Vilanch, Timur; LA Phil New Music Group, Men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Lowenstein. No text. The Industry Records

Recordings Young Cesar cover 718

THIS FIRST COMMERCIAL release of Lou Harrison’s 1971 Young Caesar was recorded live last year by the LA Phil New Music Group in collaboration with experimental opera company The Industry in honor of what would have been the composer’s hundredth birthday. (He died in 2003.) The work is a kind of prequel to Handel’s Giulio Cesare, focusing on Gaius Julius Caesar’s salad days—the death of his father, his marriage to Cornelia and his military service in Asia Minor. Robert Gordon provided a meticulously researched libretto overladen with historical detail; characters intone dry descriptions of ceremonial etiquette or Roman politics in Harrison’s lengthy pentatonic recitatives. Mercifully, this new, revised edition has cut much of the dialogue, but in some places it still feels more like a classics lecture than an opera. Things get juicier in the second half, when Gaius is sent on a mission to the Black Sea kingdom of Bithynia to request naval reinforcements from Nicomedes IV. He and the king strike up an intense love affair until Caesar remembers his Aunt Julia’s admonition that “Only the dead can afford the luxury of limitless time” and returns to Rome to fulfill his heroic destiny. 

When the opera had its premiere, in 1972, its unabashed, post-Stonewall displays of male homosexuality scandalized the Pasadena society ladies who’d financed the project. In one particularly salacious scene, Harrison’s erotic, Salome-style dance music underscored an orgy of pornographic puppets. (The Industry’s production featured shadow puppets of flying phalluses.) This “we’re here, we’re queer” aggressiveness is expected from an opera written in an age of radical social change, but there are elements of Young Caesar that don’t jibe with our more accepting and enlightened era—the stereotype of gays as lecherous and oversexed, for example. In the program notes, Gordon and director Yuval Sharon try to pass off Caesar and Nicomedes’s fling as genuine love, but there’s little emotional intimacy between the characters beyond their physical attraction. What’s more, the real-life men may never have been lovers; the entire opera hinges on a rumor that Caesar adamantly denied. For all his commitment to historical accuracy, Gordon misrepresents certain facts. Caesar’s fellow emissaries taunt him with slurs like “Queen of Bithynia” that are meant to parallel contemporary homophobia. In reality, men in ancient Rome moved freely between male and female partners. It wasn’t the alleged pederastic relationship per se that they found objectionable, but the suspicion that Caesar had taken the passive role, which was unbefitting of an adult Roman male.

While Harrison was well versed in traditional non-Western music, his jangling evocations of various Middle Eastern and East Asian styles can come off as exoticizing: Persian, Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese idioms are stripped of their characteristic timbres when played by the Western chamber orchestra, blending together like an Asian-fusion dish (though at times Harrison supplements the ensemble with authentic instruments, as in a gorgeous passage that pairs the Chinese guzheng zither and erhu spike fiddle). The score also showcases Harrison’s “American gamelan,” a combination of found objects, Western percussion and metallophones from Java and Bali. In a series of triumphant processional marches, the makeshift gamelan produces dazzling sonorities that accompany trumpet fanfares and the hearty male voices of the LA Master Chorale. Even if Harrison isn’t the most inventive melodist, his arias (many of them in da capo form, a throwback to Handel) are always backed by captivating instrumental textures, some subtly beautiful and others mesmerizingly dynamic. 

Adam Fisher’s spry tenor is well suited to the naïve young Gaius; his expansive top notes perfectly capture the intense longing of a love-struck adolescent in an aria following Caesar’s first encounter with Nicomedes. As the king, baritone Hadleigh Adams delivers his postcoital number with pop inflections that convey the confident sensuality of a more experienced lover. Mononymic tenor Timur, who moonlights as lead singer of the glam-rock outfit the Dime Museum, plays the lascivious slaveboy Dionysus, emitting moaning melismas as he describes the pleasures of Nicomedes’s court. Comedian and Hollywood Squares veteran Bruce Vilanch contributes cheeky narration. The PDF booklet that comes with this digital album includes plenty of scantily clad photos of the hunky soloists but no libretto.  —Joe Cadagin 

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