David McVicar’s 2013 production of Handel’s most popular opera Giulio Cesare, first seen at Glyndebourne in 2005, plays fast and loose with historical period, with a Roman-style breastplate for Caesar, servants sporting fezes, quasi-Bollywood dance routines, and more than one hint of World War Two. Yet one of so many uncanny, excellent features of the production is just how Baroque the whole thing feels, with its constantly abrupt shifts of mood and endless parade of brilliant, delightful flourishes. Just as the singers ornament their arias – and boy, do they ornament – so the stage is filled with throwaway gesture after throwaway gesture, from the dainty opening swoosh of the curtain to the bizarre, ghostly reappearance of two deceased characters for the final chorus. Mr McVicar is having fun here, and he takes his Met audience with him.

There’s no consistency to the setting, but thematically speaking, Mr McVicar’s subject is empire, and the breakdown in understanding that empires can bring with them to new realms. Ancient Egypt, 19th-century India, in a sense it’s all the same: they come, they misunderstand, they conquer. Bollywood might as well be the dance of the Indian royalty, for all the invading British care.

It’s Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra who gets to do the dancing, and only the coldest of viewers could not be charmed by her dynamic, minxish performance, as impressive physically as it is vocally. On the other hand, her Cleopatra never really elevates herself beyond the coquettish charmer we meet in Act I; Ms Dessay does not achieve the gravitas necessary for the later acts, where she is in love with Caesar and, in most productions, becomes a woman. This Cleopatra stays a touch too girlish throughout.

Perhaps, then, the greatest accolade one could give this broadcast is that it proves that Giulio Cesare is an even better, deeper opera than people usually realise: while the official reason it has such a legion of fans is the rare psychological depth imbued in the part of Cleopatra, here – with this element missing – it still looks and sounds like a masterpiece.

Countertenors dominate the other roles, with David Daniels leading the way in fine style as Caesar. The many close-ups of his face during his most trying vocal passages are not exactly kind, but they certainly emphasize his skill. Rachid Ben Abdelsam is in equally strong form as Nireno, but the pick of the countertenors is Christophe Dumaux as the villain Tolomeo, as exquisite vocally as any of the rest of the cast, but with acting that takes the performance a step further – Tolomeo is by far the most interesting, nuanced character in this production.

The two mezzos, mourning mother and son Cornelia and Sesto, are played by Patricia Bardon and Alice Coote – they have a wonderful mutual understanding and, needless to say, superb voices. Ms Coote’s coming of age as the revengeful youth Sesto is highly compelling. Baritone Guido Loconsolo provides some welcome relief from all that high singing, and he is rock-solid and fearsome as the henchman Achilla.

Harry Bicket conducts a sensitive, smooth Met Orchestra which seems fully at ease in this repertoire. The whole thing ticks most of the boxes one could ask for in a contemporary production: it’s inventive, clear, witty, and startlingly well done.