When David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare opened at Glyndebourne in 2005, international attention was focused on the breakdown of Iraq into a civil war that its American and British occupiers couldn’t control. A production offered by a formidably aristocratic opera house in East Sussex – with its champagne-and-strawberries picnics, enforced black tie, and cows at pasture – could only ever be quaint in its political indictments. But McVicar’s updating of Handel’s most popular opera to late 19th-century British Egypt was all the more damning because it didn’t just wheel in the tanks: it subtly undercut the hypocrisies of imperial conquest and the unsteady bargains of imperial rule in a deceptive riot of dance, wit, and colour. Eight years later, and with McVicar now a knight of the realm, the production has moved to the Metropolitan Opera.

David Daniels (center) as Caesar in a scene from Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Photo © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. Taken during the rehearsal on March 25, 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City
David Daniels (center) as Caesar in a scene from Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Photo
© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. Taken during the rehearsal on March 25, 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City

It’s still riotous, although the Met’s cavernous space makes the production feel far less intimate in its more private moments, and far more like a Broadway comedy. The politics feels less immediate in New York and after a decade of war, but the directorial team is unchanged, for the most part so is the production itself, and even some of the cast members have been carried over: Christophe Dumaux adds new depths to his sadistic, slimy, ultimately wimpish Tolomeo, Patricia Bardon remains an outwardly poised but inwardly disintegrating Cornelia, and Rachid Ben Abdeslam reprises his camp and beautifully precise Nireno.

As ever, McVicar’s production is superbly detailed and attentive to the different kinds of humour Handel provides (and it’s unafraid to add more in clever choreography from Andrew George). It begins with Caesar and British North African troops landing in Egypt, with barques riding twisting waves attractively in the far background of a colonnaded stage. It’s an invasion that doesn’t lack confidence but that needs the help of the Egyptians themselves, not only to secure power but so that Caesar can win Cleopatra’s heart. History is told through Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s brilliant costumes, moving through to an Edwardian peace in the final scene, as peace is agreed to by Brits and Egyptians alike in the form of a colonial administration. Those ships tell a story too, with Caesar’s revenge in Act III bringing gunboats and airships as his salvation. Otherwise McVicar is free with the historical details, suggesting that however local its political bargains, empire is homogenous and timeless: Cleopatra’s palace and her dancing come from the Raj via Bollywood.

World War I is just around the corner, those airships suggesting German as well as British empire, and for all its bejewelled pizazz force in this production is never far away. Despite their comedic mockery of their leader, there is a regimentation and discipline to Caesar’s troops, springing to life mechanistically in Act III. Handel’s own story might be considered ethically dodgy by modern standards, contrasting noble Romans with devious, dastardly natives in a tale of imperial triumph for the benefit of all. McVicar’s triumph is to show the emotional cost involved – particularly for Sesto, who shoots Tolomeo to avenge his father – for colonisers and colonised alike. As the ghosts of Achilla and Tolomeo return for the final chorus, bloodied but toasting each other over a decadent British celebration, it’s clear that any peace is tenuous and faux. It’s funny, of course, but it has a political point: if the empire tries to forget, those it controls and dispenses with do not.

In the original production, of which I saw a revival in 2009, McVicar’s fun, multi-faceted vision was condensed into Danielle de Niese’s sassy, strong, sexy Cleopatra. Here Natalie Dessay takes the role, and she cannot unite Handel’s extremes in quite the same way. Dessay’s acting played to the Met’s back rows, and this Cleopatra was a caricature. The distressing arias that McVicar converts from songs of lost love into transcendent elegies for what empire has wrought (Act II’s concluding “Se pietà”, and “Piangerò la sorte mia” in Act III) seem incongrous from a weak, coquettish schemer. Although Dessay’s embellishments in her da capo arias were astonishingly brave and occasionally accurate for a voice so clearly fraying, the soprano was reliably flat and lacked sufficient power for this space.

The biggest change from Lewes to New York is the replacement of Sarah Connolly’s mezzo-soprano for the role of Caesar with a countertenor. David Daniels brought luxurious smoothness to his singing, and his arias in Acts II and III were dazzling. That smoothness came at the expense of conveying a lust for power – or for Cleopatra, for that matter – but surely over the course of this run Daniels will make his Caesar less gullible and more venomous.

The rest of the cast was outstanding. Patricia Bardon gives the role of Cornelia a renewed sense of trajectory, and sings with a sensible but affecting approach. Alice Coote is predictably superb as Sesto, capturing all the emotional fragility McVicar loads onto the character, particularly in her kaleidoscopic Act III aria “La giustizia”. Christophe Dumaux’s Tolomeo is vicious but soft at heart, sung with control that belied his spitting consonants and vocal aggression. Guido Loconsolo’s Achilla menaced aptly, with power to spare in his two arias.

Conductor Harry Bicket kept things moving, although this performance continued well beyond midnight. The Met orchestra played with “historically-informed” shackles kept firmly on, but brought rhythmic zest that made up for short-breathed phrasing. Particular praise must be reserved for some outstanding brass playing on natural horns and trumpets, and for leader David Chan’s onstage violin work in Caesar’s “Se in fiorito”.

A delicious, smart production, then, with interest for the brain, ears, and eyes alike.

****1