Reaching the end of Giulio Cesare at its Metropolitan Opera opening night wasn't just a matter of taking in four-plus hours of Handel’s greatest arias, but navigating stories within stories, whether in the wide-ranging cultural references of David McVicar’s 2005 Glyndeboune production or one’s own history with individual singers, starting with the star Natalie Dessay, who seemed to be so ill-suited to Cleopatra that many speculated she would cancel. Instead, she triumphed.
The opera wasn’t delivered strictly on its own terms. Whether or not any given Met subscriber is ready for a Giulio Cesare, the production rarely sits still in any respect. Rarely do "da capo" arias seem to retrace their musical steps: Repetition was addressed with liberal use of vocal ornaments in ways that were musically and dramatically apt. Theatrically, the Caesar and Cleopatra story became a study in political and sexual power as a weaker, ancient culture strikes an alliance with a younger, vigorous one — told in a non-chronological fantasy of visual references partly from the Victorian-era British domination of India and Suez. A diorama of sorts showed the ocean alternately filled with clipper ships, zeppelins, 20th century battle ships and, finally, the Titanic.
Some arias were choreographed Bollywood style, but fashioned to Handel’s rhythms in ways that seemed jokey, though the audience responded to the showmanship. And that was part of the point: Politics as theater. Often, a stage would open up into another stage and yet another – delineated in Act II by a series of heavy curtains, all in vivid, iridescent colors characteristic of India, but in a stage set structure from Handel’s 18th century. Cleopatra was costumed as an all-purpose seductress at times, though when in disguise, she was the silent film star Louise Brooks.
Acting subtleties (McVicar’s hallmark) didn’t project so well in such a large auditorium. Indeed, one could question the wisdom of presenting this opera at the Met. Even with Handel specialist Harry Bicket in the pit, the modern-instrument orchestra only minimally adopted 18th-century manners. Pacing wasn’t great, sometimes lacking a sense of Handel’s longer arcs created from a huge variety of arias and recitatives.
The Met’s expanse can be hard on Handelian singers. As Caesar, David Daniels sounded underpowered except in isolated areas of his range where he blasted notes as if compensating for what came before. His coloratura was approximate. Unlike Bach, whose underlying ideas carry singers when all the notes aren’t there, compromised Handel characters can seem like incomplete mosaics.
Dessay, in contrast, sang with the kind of rich tone, firm legato line and vibrato control that I haven’t heard from her in years. (Interestingly, Ian Bostridge has had a near-identical vocal transformation recently. Do they have the same voice doctor?) She was hardly the most regal or sexual Cleopatra (neither was Kathleen Battle when the Met first presented the opera in 1988) and played some scenes for laughs. In important emotional moments, though, emotional depths were there. Let's not forget the revisionist views of Cleopatra are more about brains than beauty.
Among important secondary characters, Patricia Barden (as the grieving widow Cornelia) left some of the opera’s best music feeling a tad dull. As fiery Sesto, Alice Coote was one of the best voices onstage, perhaps too rich for Handel’s intricacies but having such charisma you wanted her to sing more. The cast’s other countertenors, Christophe Dumaux (Ptolemy) and Rachid Ben Abdeslam (Nirenus), were remarkably imposing.
Photo: Patricia Bardon as Cornelia and Alice Coote as Sesto in Handel's 'Giulio Cesare.' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Update: This review previously stated that the Met’s Giulio Cesare was virtually uncut, based on information supplied by the company. After further inquiries, the company provided a correction that, in fact, two arias were cut.