You might expect an opera about Julius Caesar to present him as a mighty figure, a powerful and awesome general. However, Baroque opera tends to defy expectations for those of us who are used to later periods of the opera, and Georg Frederic Handel's opera, Giulio Cesare, is like a slap in the face to the drowsy, complacent operagoer. Handel has literally emasculated his Caesar; the part is written for a castrato, a type of singer that, for obvious reasons, no longer exists. The most accurate alternative is to use a counter-tenor, as New York's Metropolitan Opera has in their new production, which was transmitted to movie theaters worldwide as part of the Met's Live in HD Series. Handel wrote the opera for a castrato not only in the part of Caesar (counter-tenor David Daniels), but also for two other crucial roles as well. The opera is the story of Caesar's conquest of Egypt, which is met with unrest as Ptolemy (counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux), the man who rules Egypt in conjunction with his sister, Cleopatra (soprano Natalie Dessay), kills the Roman consul, Pompey. Cleopatra joins forces with Caesar against her brother, much to the delight of Pompey's widow, Cornelia (mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon), and their son, Sextus (mezzo soprano Alice Coote, in a trouser role).
A problem with a Baroque opera, and Giulio Cesare is no different, is that the drama is inert; unlike later operas, there is little interaction between the characters, who essentially come out onto the stage, perform their aria, and walk off, almost like a staged oratorio. It is a task for an imaginative director to put the movement into this opera, and the Met was able to enlist the services of the Scottish director, David McVicar, to bring his production which originated at the Glyndborne Festival in Scotland to New York, and the results are astonishing. McVicar has moved the opera forward to the Edwardian period of the 1920's, and the opera's look owes a lot to both screwball and slapstick comedies, as well as movie musicals of the 1930's. In this production, Cleopatra is a flapper, and Ptolemy has been transformed into a near-psychotic who tortures both Cornelia and Sextus; his sexual preferences seem to include both an incestuous one for his sister, as well as (not very well) closeted homosexuality. In fact, McVicar seems to have taken the vocal gender-bending as a cue to insert a kind of gay pride theme and has made not only Ptolemy, but Nireno, Cleopatra's servant (counter-tenor Rachid Ben Abdelsam) into a gay character. McVicar and choreographer Andrew George have added another kinetic dimension to the opera by adding Broadway-style choreography as a counterpoint to the Baroque score, which reveals incredible imagination and wit on the part of the creative team.
The music of Giulio Cesare is never anything short of sublime, and the mixture of recitatives and and endless stream of arias reveal why Handel is one of the supreme figures in Western music. However, the main trouble in staging an opera like Giulio Cesare is just what to do about those castrato roles. Some productions have used women in the roles, but the Met probably has the greatest resources of any opera company in the world, so it was possible for them to assemble the three counter-tenors necessary. The physical exertion to produce such a high sound, in such a large opera house, particularly with the Baroque ornamentation that such vocal roles demand, is not an occurrence that should be regarded as ordinary. Hats off then to David Daniels, who sustains the demanding role of Caesar with not only exceptional stamina, but also exceptional musicianship. As Ptolemy, Christophe Dumaux stole the show with his terrifying villainy, projecting a truly distorted psyche. Cleopatra is one of Natalie Dessay's signature roles, and she is beloved at the Met; though I have never been overly impressed with her voice, she is in fairly comfortable territoryhere, and her ability to simply perform such a demanding role with so many lengthy arias should be acknowledged. The choreography and the movement put into the opera by McVicar also means that the roles were especially physically demanding, and it was quite impressive to see what the performers, especially Ms. Dessay, could do physically to accompany their already difficult vocal roles to create one of the most visually remarkable operas I have ever seen. The conductor Harry Bicket, a Baroque specialist, led a scaled-down version of the Met forces in a taut performance of Handel's score.
Georg Frederic Handel's Giulio Cesare will be encored as part of the Met in HD Series on Wednesday, May 15, at 6:30 PM local time. This is the final new performance that will part of the Met Live in HD Series for the 2012-2013 season. There will also be several encores of past performances of Met Operas at movie theaters this summer; please go to metopera.org/hdlive for details.