Flapper Cleopatra Woos Julius in Sexy Black Dress

Glyndebourne’s hit 2005 production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” sailed into the Metropolitan Opera last Thursday, dropping the original Cleopatra and Julius Caesar along the way.

Why didn’t a long aria or two go overboard as well?

We sat down eagerly (this is a famous and melodic opera by the master of “Messiah”) at 7:30, but as midnight approached, a bit of the charm had worn off.

“Sextus! Stop crying over that urn with your father’s ashes and go stab Ptolemy!”

An enthusiastic London audience first adored “Giulio Cesare” in 1724, a time when operas were long, even if life was rather shorter on average. Handel himself monkeyed with his scores all the time, depending on the cast. Maybe the Met should, too.

Fortunately, David McVicar’s witty and imaginative production is conducted with such humor and relative speed by Harry Bicket, that my life clock started skipping a few happy beats whenever Cleopatra danced into view.

Natalie Dessay sings very carefully these days, but her timing rivals that of Danielle De Niese, who made a sensational Glyndebourne debut in 2005 as Cleopatra. (De Niese was called in to substitute for the ailing Dessay at the April 9th performance.)

Pompey’s Urn

At the Met, Dessay won us over with her Charleston and got a good laugh as she parked her parasol in Pompey’s urn. And while the voice has threadbare patches, it’s not every divette who can look so good in the little cocktail dress Cleo flaunts for her studied seduction of Caesar.

McVicar and his brilliant team (Robert Jones, sets; Brigitte Reiffenstuel, costumes; Paule Constable, lighting; and Andrew George, choreography) capture the shifting moods of joy, horror, hope, humor, vengeance and love once Caesar steps off a toy boat in the harbor of Alexandria and into the flamboyant world of baroque opera.

Imperious castratos were the plumed stars of the day, altered males like Senesino who thrilled as Caesar with his piercing coloratura voice.

In our own time, mezzos and countertenors sing their roles, though when Beverly Sills made opera history as Cleopatra at the New York City Opera in 1966, the bass baritone Norman Treigle wore Caesar’s laurel.

Delicate Hero

Countertenor David Daniels looked dashing in Caesar’s red coat with epaulets, even if the voice is rather a delicate instrument these days for the conquering hero.

The costumes throughout avoid Delta Tau Chi togas for an inventive mix of Suez Canal colonial and Alexandrian-Oriental hodge-podge.

The skirted extravaganzas favored by Cleopatra’s petulant fruitcake brother Ptolemy were worn with panache by the splendid French countertenor Christophe Dumaux. Baritone Guido Loconsolo made an impressive debut as his adviser Achillas, a man besotted with the widow Cornelia (that he cut off her husband’s head doesn’t help his cause).

Amid all the fighting, dancing, marching and saluting, there were quiet moments of beauty thanks to Handel, the singers and Constable’s sensitive lighting. The scenes between Patricia Bardon as the mournful Cornelia and Alice Coote as her son Sextus were deeply moving.

Bardon is a holdover from the Glyndebourne premiere and as I watched that on the Opus Arte label (captained by a riveting Sarah Connolly), I did wonder if it isn’t a bit disingenuous for the Met to call this a new production when it is eight years old and has knocked about Chicago.

The production’s chief sponsors are The Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation, in memory of William B. Warren and the Mercedes T. Bass Charitable Corporation.

“Giulio Cesare” plays at the Met tonight and in repertory through May 10 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212-362-6000; http://www.metoperafamily.org. Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:
*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is the executive editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Philip Boroff on theater and James Russell on architecture.

Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net