Monday, June 13, 2022

Handel's "Giustino" Reimagined at Long Beach

Cast members for LBO's production of Handel's Giustino; l-r: Orson Van Gay, Dante Mireles,
Luke Elmer (standing), Sharon Chohi Kim (seated), Anna Schubert (behind),
Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Marlaina Owens.


Long Beach Opera, Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach

George Frideric Handel,
by Francis Kyte (1742).
Before George Frideric Handel promoted righteousness in his 25 oratorios, most famously Messiah, he trafficked in a lot of sin and skullduggery in nearly twice as many operas. Giustino HWB 37, one of his last composed (in 1737, for London's Covent Garden Theatre), was given three performances last month by the Long Beach Opera at the outdoor sculpture garden of the city’s Museum of Latin American Art. I took in the first one on May 21.

This opera seems to have been inspired by the improbable but true story of the rise of Justinian I (“the Great”), Emperor of Byzantium from 527 to 565, who, though born a humble peasant, eventually led the successful defense of his empire in time of war. Handel’s opera, a fanciful prequel to this real history, explores the dynamics of attaining leadership, which is thrust on two characters initially unprepared for the challenge.

The Emperor Justinian I,
from a mosaic at Ravenna.
The LBO’s regietheater production of the work was loads of fun, but as is the company’s wont, it takes cavalier liberties with the storyline. To understand the how, where, and why of it, let’s first consider the original version’s story as Handel premiered it in 1737.

Byzantium’s capital, Constantinople, is under rebellion. The young, widowed Empress Arianna has just married Anastasio on the rebound but is threatened by the treacherous general Amanzio and his servant Polidarte. When Arianna rejects the amorous advances of another general, Vitaliano, he seeks her downfall. To counter these worries, supernatural assurance comes from La Fortuna, who tells a simple ploughboy, Giustino (Justinian), asleep on a distant field, that he should come to her rescue. On the way to help his Empress, he rescues a lady in distress, Princess Leocasta, who is Anastasio's sister.

Handel’s theatrical instincts led him to spike Giustino with even more special effects than his earlier operas: a sea monster, furious storms, a shipwreck, even a cleaving mountain. These sorts of thrills recall the over-the-top antics of Saturday morning matinees, as revived in films like Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series. They suggest why LBO Director James Darrah reimagined Giustino as a B western, with Handel’s Byzantium displaced to Southern California’s hardscrabble Mojave Desert—so that an evening of what was originally opera seria aimed for a lot of opera buffa laughs.

The action unfolds on a long, narrow catwalk stage in the Museum’s al fresco courtyard, its eight cast members playing to audiences seated on both its opposite sides and at a far end. Despite the nearly 360-degree challenge of relating to the audience, the body-miked cast seemed to cover all sides well enough, their voices nicely balanced and synched with an amplified Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra placed at some distance from the stage’s remaining short end. 

Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra in action.

Crisp, sure-handed direction from Christopher Rountree, the LBO’s newly-appointed Music Director, ensured a smooth flow of both music and dramatic action, no mean feat in this sprawling layout. The cast performed at a remarkably high level on the chilly opening night.

Much of Handel’s music was cut, including the overture. The roughly two hours of it that remained, with one intermission, were put on the musical steroids of composer Shelley Washington’s amped-up rock- and disco-inflected rescorings. I had trepidations anticipating them, but Washington’s self-described "slightly wild, slightly mysterious” interpolations were deftly integrated. (In whatever guise his music is dressed, Handel’s great tunes always register.)

Pablo Santiago and Michael Rathbun’s lighting worked best when darkness arrived a half hour into the evening’s production, which began at 7:30 pm. Outdoor screens sported distant mountains in pastel hues and a close saguaro cactus (almost all of which are in Arizona, not California). Until nightfall the printed lyrics hugging the bottom of the screens were too washed out to be readable: after darkness arrived, they were indispensable.

Giustino (Luke Elmer, countertenor)
with supernatural help La Fortuna
(Sharon Chohi Kim, soprano).
Giustino holds interest today in part for the psychological dynamics between its four principal characters: the initially inexperienced Empress Arianna, her unreliable general Vitaliano, the treacherous general Amanzio, and an almost otherworldly hero, Giustino. Betrayals, deceptions and dirty tricks abound, with fortunes flying up and down.

The male cast here, Giustino excepted, are boorish cowboys lusting after the keys to the kingdom or to Arianna’s bedroom, depending on their impulse of the moment. They mess with the female royal court in a booze-soaked, run-down motel, frequently in its bed. The women, however, dwell on a behavioral plateau above these slackers. They are savvier and, even in this downscale locale, more stylish. The ensuing struggles between them have as many double-crossings as a bin full of Dos Equis bottles.

Arianna (Anna Schubert, soprano)
and new husband Anastasio
(Marlaina Owens, soprano).
In her appearance as Empress Arianna, Anna Schubert’s crystal-clear soprano charmed in her early guise as a carefree new bride sporting a peekaboo orange dress that could draw the attention of any Byzantine, eligible or not. Velvet-voiced soprano Marlaina Owens, trouser-roled in a prairie sheepskin blazer as Arianna’s new husband, Anastasio, projected macho dominance, her self-assurance in high-relief contrast to Arianna’s initial naiveté.

Powerful bass-baritone Douglas Williams brought dramatic heft and menace to the traitorous general Amanzio, partnering his dark baritone with Dante Mireles’ softer-grained baritone soldier-servant Polidarte. The Baroque era’s convention of low voice roles being bad guys is here injected with steroids.

The title character Giustino, sung by countertenor Luke Elmer, is a prototype “innocent boy-savior.” Western culture is full of them: the young David who fells Goliath, the infant Jesus who redeems the world, and more recently the fresh-faced Luke Skywalker who quells the Galactic Empire. In operatic terms, the last Wagner hero, Parsifal, is comparable. In this production, Giustino is a scruffy guy with a ball cap, clueless of any inherent cunning or craft. His powers will derive not from preparation or purpose, but from a divine source pulling strings for him.

The transformed Arianna (Anna Schubert)
hogties Vitaliano (Orson Van Gay, tenor).
Once La Fortuna (sweetly chirped by Sharon Chohi Kim) tells Giustino he’s headed for good fortune, he meets every adversity with effortless, almost detached calm, first saving the aforementioned Princess Leocasta (sweet-voiced Amanda Lynn Bottoms) from a wild boar, and later slaying a sea monster. Finally, he himself is saved from harm when a mountain cleaves and a supernatural voice within tells Giustino's tormentor, general Vitaliano, to knock it off. Is it any wonder Giustino never seems to sweat in this work?

Vitaliano (pliant tenor Orson Van Gay) had engaged all evening in repeated rebellious confrontations with Empress Arianna, but at a pivotal point, with the two locked in a power struggle, she finally rises to the demands of her office. Her heroics, in contrast to those of Giustino, rely entirely upon her own wits and grit. Outfitted in designer Adam Rigg’s fire-red dress, emerald stiletto boots extending up her thighs, and armed with a cattle rope (purple-colored, no less), Arianna hog-ties Vitaliano and rolls him up in her carpet. Sitting on the rolled-up him, she sends home to the half-suffocating general just exactly who’s the boss of Byzantium. 

Where Giustino's victories essentially derive from divine interventiion, Arianna's triumph comes from the hard work of experience and grit facing down her fears and confronting her powerful enemies. There is, here, telling commentary on the war of the sexes. The opera may be named for Giustino, but it is the much put-upon Empress Arianna who is the true heroine in this prequel to the real Byzantium's long-reigning Justinian I. From an audience perspective as well, it is the Arianna character who holds interest, and the evening was a triumph for Anna Schubert's portrayal of her. 

Empress Arianna also proves, cheekily, that clothes do indeed make the woman. With this sure-footed demonstration of discipline, the wavering Vitaliano finally achieves his moment of clarity. He will soon be off to raise an army in defense of his Empress. The additional discovery that he's also Giustino’s long-lost brother seals the deal for his restitution.

Still, I wouldn’t trust the guy for a moment. Nor should you.


Handel's Giustino, Long Beach Opera, Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, Saturday, May 21, 2022, 7:30 p.m. 
Images: The production: Jordan Geiger; Handel: National Portrait Gallery, London; Justinian: Wikimedia Commons; Musica Angelica orchestra: Rodney Punt.

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