Laurent Pelly's production of Giulio Cesare, created for the Opéra Garnier in Paris, is a play of references to antiquity, heroism and myth. However, it does not thrill. The scenes show the depot of an Egyptian museum, where statues and other archaeological artefacts are piled. It could be the Egyptian museum in Turin or maybe the one in Cairo, considering that the attendants wore a fez. Singers play statues which comes to life and interact in this dimension: some arias are enacted inside glass cases, as death masks which arise from their immobility to perform their song. Cleopatra enters the scene on a pulley, rather than being carried on a litter. And, in the end, all the characters return to their original form: marble historical testimonies framed in the deposit’s shelf units.

The reference to the past, the dialectic with myth and history: everything is mere quotationism. It could seem ironic, and maybe in Pelly’s ambition it is, but the overall impression is of a French can-can – overloaded, academic and banal. It gets even worse in Act II, where the classical allusions increase towards a derivative parade, among laces and Watteau-style images, neoclassical sculptures and Baroque frames. A sort of epic, like Sokurov's Russian Ark, but with neither its originality nor coherence.

Handel’s masterpiece made its debut in 1724 at King’s Theatre in London with two superstars of the time: the castrato Francesco Bernardi (known as “Senesino”) and soprano Francesca Cuzzoni. It is a long and complex work: thirty arias with da capo preceded by recitative secco, three ariosi, four recitative accompagnati, two duets, several pieces of instrumental music and choruses, for an overall length which challenges even Wagner. The plot is known: after the victory in Pharsalus in 48BC, Cesare (Julius Caesar) reaches Egypt, chasing the defeated rival Pompeo (Pompey). Cesare finds out here that Pompeo is already dead, assassinated by Egyptian king Tolomeo, who had hoped this would help him to achieve Cesare’s favour (who was, on the contrary, horrified). Cleopatra seduces Cesare, while Achilla and Tolomeo try to harass Cornelia, Pompeo’s widow. A happy ending return everything to the legitimate order.

This production was musically splendid. Alessandro De Marchi is an expert of Baroque repertoire. He conducted with full control of the orchestra pit and of the performers on stage, as displayed by the particularly outstanding choruses in the opening of the first act (“Viva, viva il nostro Alcide!), in the end of the third (“Ritorni omai nel nostro core”) and in Cleopatra’s epiphany with the resembles of Virtue in “V’adoro, pupille”. The Orchestra del Teatro Regio played competently, incisive and producing a clear sound.

The cast was of a high level. Sonia Prina sang Giulio Cesare. Despite some uncertainty and flaws at the beginning (such as in “Empio, dirò, tu sei”), Prina was able to grasp Handel’s virtuosity with her beautiful dark timbre: she is an authentic contralto with an elegant technique and she was moving in the recitativo accompagnato  “Alma del gran Pompeo”, a moment of grief on the fugacity of life and the inconsistency of human honour. Jessica Pratt was a melodious Cleopatra who flew up with her limpid voice, with delicately softened notes. She perhaps lacked some morbidity when approaching a high note during the strenuous “Che sento? Oh dio!”or in “Se pieta di me non senti”. That said, she has a beautiful and agile voice and a secure vocal emission. Her metamorphosis from femme fatale (who aims at cynically conquer Cesare for the throne) to woman sincerely in love is also persuasive.

Sara Mingardo was an unforgettable and sorrowful Cornelia, endowed with a precious, personal and burnished timbre which she modulated through a wide range of shades. Mingardo sang with an almost philological precision (“Cessa ormai di sospirare”) but never with virtuosity per se. Her polished technique was accompanied by moments of trepidation, full of pathos like in the aria “Priva son d’ogni conforto” and in “Non ha più che temere quest’alma vendicata”. The cast was completed by the intense Maite Beaumont, the lively and graceful Tolomeo of Jud Perry, the Achilla of Guido Consolo (precise and well phrased) and the adequate Nireno of Riccardo Angelo Strano and Curio of Antonio Abete.