Live Theater, Live Theater Reviews

Theatre Review: Sparks Fly and People Die in OTSL’s Julius Caesar

Posted: June 15, 2024 at 9:54 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Passion and politics collide with dire consequences in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ mesmeric Julius Caesar. Based on Handel’s opera seria, this company premiere features a talented ensemble performing some of the grandest arias in opera.

While Handel’s opera is based on Caesar’s visit to Egypt in 48 BC (during the height of the Roman Civil War), Elkhanah Pulitzer’s production places the drama in contemporary times.

Her production, which features a high-rise-office vibe from set designer Allen Moyer, is set in an undisclosed modern empire. Utilizing open spaces, and lighting that perfectly frames the mood of the drama onstage, Pulitzer successfully reframes a period piece for present times. Pairing board rooms with backstabbing, Pulitzer melds geopolitics with Handel’s score, gorgeously executed by conductor Daniela Candillari. Scaled down to two acts, this contemporary setting gives Julius Caesar a cosmopolitan energy.

Despite the new locale, the opera’s plot remains the same. A power-hungry Julius Caesar arrives in Egypt and soon meets Cleopatra. Mutually enchanted by one another they ally against Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemy XIII, who seeks to grab the reins of power.

As their alliance grows, Caesar and Cleopatra’s relationship becomes more and more complicated, leading to a passionate love affair. While their dalliance deepens, the rulers are quickly swept up in political intrigue, revenge, betrayal, and power as alliances shift and rival factions plot.

Sarah Mesko is excellent as Caesar. The mezzo-soprano’s arias are captivating. The glue that holds the entire production together, she gives the Roman ruler a vulnerability and authoritarian swagger that captivates audiences.

Soprano Emily Pogoreic is a highly touted singer whose debut with the company is nothing short of breathtaking. She shines as Cleopatra, bringing the conflict’s passion and inner turmoil to the forefront in a dazzling performance.

It is a real treat watching Meridian Prall’s performance as Cornelia. Gifted with a great voice, she pours on the grief as a woman seeking vengeance. Her presence brings gravitas to this complex character.

Key’mon W. Murrah is a countertenor on the rise. Starring as the dangerous Ptolemy, he brings the character’s more frightening aspects to the surface while blending just enough charm to keep audiences guessing his motives. His otherworldly voice marks an exciting OTSL debut.

The rest of the ensemble is equally good. Tackling this prodigious work head-on, the talented troupe creates a boundless liveliness that allows the opera to keep its momentum.

Free of columns and togas, OTSL’s Julius Caesar is an opera of contrasts. Filled with moments of love and brutality, the production revives Handel’s drama of siblings, civil war, and skullduggery with a modern flare.

Julius Caesar runs through June 28 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University. Productions at Opera Theatre St. Louis are in English with musical accompaniment from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. For more information on programming or the 2024 season, visit

Photos: Eric Woolsey