The newest production to enter the Metropolitan Opera’s repertoire is a spirited presentation of the oldest opera performed this season: George Frideric Handel’s 1724 “Giulio Cesare in Egitto.” Depicting Julius Caesar’s military campaign into ancient Alexandria and his love affair with the exotic queen Cleopatra, the piece features some of Handel’s most exciting and poignant music.
The new staging by Scottish director David McVicar updates the setting to 19th century Egypt during the age of British imperialism, but also features some playful historical anachronisms, including Cleopatra’s 1920s-inspired cocktail dress and Bollywood dance numbers. The production and its truly first-rate cast, including three countertenors (men who sing solely in their falsetto range), offer a charming version of this Baroque masterpiece.
At the heart of this opera stands Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), portrayed by countertenor David Daniels. With vocal agility and solid technique, Daniels effortlessly executes passages of richly ornamented music, but also sang beautifully in moments of creamy lyricism. Unfortunately, because of the weak nature of the countertenor instrument—the falsetto sound is usually a thinner tone incapable of much resonance—Daniels sometimes has trouble projecting over the already-reduced Baroque orchestration.
French soprano Natalie Dessay’s past few outings on the Met’s stage have been disappointingly underwhelming, as the lustrous quality of her once extraordinary voice has declined dramatically in recent years. But in this performance, audiences are treated to a glimpse of her past glory.
As Cleopatra, Dessay succeeds in offering a captivating vocal presentation without taxing the frayed extremes of her range, and she imbues her character’s emotionally rich music with affecting elegance. The soprano sings the role’s florid arias with inventive embellishments, while bringing her quirky persona to many entertaining dance numbers.
As the mother and son pair Cornelia and Sesto, mezzo-sopranos Patricia Bardon and Alice Coote deliver two of the evening’s most engaging portrayals. Both singers brought intense commitment to their roles and are especially compelling when performing some of the opera’s achingly passionate melodies. A highlight of the evening is, undoubtedly, their wrenchingly spun duet at the conclusion of Act One.
As mentioned earlier, two other countertenors share the stage in this Baroque classic. As Cleopatra’s conniving brother Tolomeo, Christophe Dumuax is a true stage animal. Unlike Daniels, Dumuax’s round tone soared into the auditorium, and his portrayal is both intimidating and deeply deranged. Literally backflipping at one point, Dumuax offers an enjoyably sinister portrayal, and Moroccan countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam brings rich, lush timbre and a delightfully flamboyant temperament to Nireno, Cleopatra’s faithful attendant.
Baritone Guido Loconsolo, as Achilla, delivers the least vocally interesting performance of the evening with a slightly annoying nasal tone, while John Moore is a suitable Curio.
Under the leadership of a Baroque specialist, conductor Harry Bicket, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is transformed into a highly skilled 18th-century ensemble, and concertmaster David Chan exhibits some impressive musicianship during a lighthearted cameo.
McVicar’s new production succeeds in faithfully representing the complexities of Handel’s opera. A melodious love scene follows a joyous dance number, an intense fight sequence precedes a heartfelt lament, and the dramatic tone continues to shift from scene to scene. Yet these combinations never seem forced or unnatural, and McVicar handles every moment—the comic, the painful, the uncomfortable—with equal sincerity and respect.
The features that make “Giulio Cesare” an operatic success may also be obstacles for some Columbians. Firstly, the piece’s sheer length—over four hours—can tax anyone’s attention span. But McVicar (and Handel even more so) does a great job in keeping the audience engaged for the entirety of the piece.
Secondly, the rigidly formulaic musical style itself can be off-putting, and the multitude of countertenors might seem downright disconcerting. However, those who approach this “Giulio Cesare” with an open mind will find a wealth of musical and theatrical diversity to enjoy.
Performances of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” continue through May 10.