It's back. Sir David McVicar's ridiculously entertaining romp through Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto returns to Glyndebourne. Unveiled at the 2005 festival, where it made a star of Danielle de Niese (then Cleopatra, now châtelaine), it was last revived in 2009. McVicar resets the action from 48BC to the zenith of the British Empire, Egypt under Ottoman rule, references to the British Raj and Bollywood thrown in. It's a mixture of high camp – Carry on up the Nile, if you will – and stinging poignancy, ticking every box for a terrific night in the opera house.

Sarah Connolly (Giulio Cesare) and Joélle Harvey (Cleopatra) © Bill Cooper
Sarah Connolly (Giulio Cesare) and Joélle Harvey (Cleopatra)
© Bill Cooper

Robert Jones' colonnaded set is simple, revolving waves recalling Baroque theatre machinery. McVicar keeps the period fluid. Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes are a riot of references and eras – pith helmets and fez – with some saucy numbers for Joélle Harvey's slinky Cleopatra. 19th-century frigates bob along the Mediterranean, replaced during the jubilant aria “Da tempeste” by battleships and a flight of zeppelins. The humour quotient is high, such as Cleo depositing her umbrella into the urn containing Pompeo's ashes! Perhaps the Pythonesque giant hand descending during Sesto's “Svegliatevi nel core” is a miscalculation but easily forgivable. Andrew George's choreography is superb, from belly-dancing and Indian hand gestures to the frosty diplomacy of “Va tacito e nascosto” with its pacing and posturing.

Joélle Harvey (Cleopatra) © Bill Cooper
Joélle Harvey (Cleopatra)
© Bill Cooper

There is a witty reference to the Baroque practice of having the entire cast sing the final chorus, including those risen from the dead, causing some nauseous looks from Sesto as Tolomeo raises a glass of bubbly in his direction. But McVicar makes serious points about imperialism, and the plight of Cornelia, along with Sesto's thirst for revenge, are taken utterly seriously. More importantly, the opera's great numbers are never undermined by the staging, presented with simplicity and sincerity so they hit home.

William Christie, who conducted the production's première, returns to lead the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a beautifully shaped account, tempi never feeling unduly rushed, but also alive to the dance rhythms in Handel's great score. A few of his original cast return to their roles, but it's newcomer Joélle Harvey who impressed most at this opening performance. Cleopatra has eight arias (of which only one is cut in this production) and Harvey surmounted the challenge of each with panache, poise and wit. Her purity of line and ability to gently bend a note made “Se pietà” truly memorable. Her coloratura was crystal clear, rattled off in thrilling fashion in “Da tempeste” where she was evidently having an absolute ball on stage. Harvey is as accomplished a hoofer as De Niese, revelling in the show's joyous choreography. A triumph.

Joélle Harvey (Cleopatra) © Bill Cooper
Joélle Harvey (Cleopatra)
© Bill Cooper

Anna Stéphany, who thrilled in last year's La clemenza di Tito here, plays another Sesto here. Her lithe mezzo projected well. “Cara speme” was heartbreaking, with sensitive ornamentation in the da capo. John Moore's testosterone-fuelled Achilla made a strong impact, as did Kangmin Justin Kim as Cleopatra's servant Nireno, camping up the role wickedly. Returning to their roles, Patricia Bardon's burnt umber contralto made for a dignified Cornelia while Christophe Dumaux's psychotic Tolomeo – a despotic Khedive – sang strongly, his countertenor darker than Kim's, the coloratura more vehement.

Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) and Anna Stéphany (Sesto) © Bill Cooper
Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) and Anna Stéphany (Sesto)
© Bill Cooper

The only disappointment came via the title role. Dame Sarah Connolly has sung Cesare in this production many times and is fully versed in the staging's physical demands. Her manly swagger and machismo are highly convincing, but although all the notes were there, they didn't always cross the footlights, sounding sadly underpowered. She was at her best in the gorgeous aria “Se in fiorito ameno prato”, duetting with on-stage violinist Michael Gurevich in avian imitation.

Interviewed at the time of this production's first outing, McVicar declared that “Entertainment is not a dirty word”. His Giulio Cesare remains the most entertaining opera production I've witnessed. With mostly top notch singing, this revival is nigh on irresistible.