Stunning Giulio Cesare At The Met

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, N.Y.; April 9, 2013—Director David McVicar’s production of Handel’s greatest opera, Giulio Cesare, originally mounted for England’s Glyndebourne Festival (and released and widely appreciated on DVD), has arrived at the Met, replacing the ho-hum, 1988 show by John Copley.  McVicar gets everything there is to get out of the opera—love, loss, playfulness, brutality—and adds, not incorrectly, a grand statement about imperialism.

Sets and costumes change eras from scene to scene—all brilliantly (Robert Jones is responsible for the former; Brigitte Reiffenstuel for the latter)—and in a blaze of color and wit.  The Romans, though, are always seen as 19th century Imperialists, while the Egyptians keep altering their “unusual” styles, to depict the East as all-purpose different and odd.

The set, with the Met proscenium reduced for intimacy, is made up of four sets of columns from which different draperies emerge; at the back of the stage are the (clearly fake) rolling waves of the sea, with a big blue sky above. We see ancient ships as well as WW I battleships; dirigibles loom overhead. The entire piece ends in the Edwardian Era, with everyone impeccably dressed and being served bubbly by Fez-wearing servants; the opera’s two villains, Achilla and Tolomeo, who have been killed in the third act, come back, bloodstained, and join in the toast to harmony, love, and an improbable peace. There have always been bad guys, there have always been good guys, and for some, it seems as if love conquers all.

Throughout, characters dance to Andrew George’s choreography—mostly in Bollywood style, occasionally imitating martial arts—and jump onto and off tables and do somersaults. The concept and execution are spectacular; rarely has the Met audience sat perfectly riveted for almost five hours and broken out into such uproarious applause at the end. Handel joining Wagner in rapt concentration—who would have imagined?

The indisposition of Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra was met with some disappointment, which dissipated when Daniele de Niese was announced as her replacement.  It was de Niese who originated the role in this production at Glyndebourne eight years ago and it is she who stars in the DVD. De Niese, a stunning woman who was a child star, is of the more-is-better school of both acting and singing—there is rarely any subtlety in either—but there is no doubting her ability to thrill. And thrill she did: she was sexy, funny, and agile and in superb voice throughout her eight (!) grand arias, and deserved the ovation she received.

David Daniels as Caesar also commands attention, and if he occasionally had a bit of difficulty with the wildly fast runs and roulades in an aria or two, he more than made up for it elsewhere: he played and sang the warrior as believably as the smitten lover. Cornelia, the widow of Pompey (whose head is presented to Caesar in Act 1, much to the Emperor’s revulsion), can be a dreary role, but mezzo Patricia Bardon, lovely of voice and figure, made her plight believable—she is the opera’s moral center. As her son, Sesto, who is traumatized by the events around him—including the moment when he murders his father’s killer—mezzo Alice Coote proved again that she is nonpareil among Handel singers.

The bad guys were also superbly portrayed: Christophe Dumaux, a lithe countertenor with a sound entirely different from Daniels’, was dazzling as the smarmy, dangerous, cross-dressing Tolomeo, and bass-baritone Guido Loconsolo’s Achilla was wonderfully sung and acted, sometimes lying down, sometimes leaping in air. The others in the cast were excellent. Harry Bicket led the reduced Met Orchestra (but with added Baroque instruments) in a perfectly paced, vital performance. Now 190 years old, Giulio Cesare seems utterly new and crucial today at the Met.