George Frideric Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, introduced in February 1724 with a starry London cast that included the fabled castrato Sensino in the title role, was the then-39-year-old composer’s grandest opera to date: epic in sweep, opulent in detail. Handel also supervised three revivals, each time tailoring new material to the singers at hand. Changing tastes prompted posthumous revisions; New York City Opera’s famous 1966 rendition, for instance, had a bass for its hero, not a countertenor or female alto (and certainly not a castrato).
The opera came to the Met in 1988 in a regally conventional John Copley staging, with a historically astute conductor in Trevor Pinnock and a luxe cast topped by Tatiana Troyanos and Kathleen Battle. That production—meant to help an opera made for an 850-seat theater play to the Met’s 3,700 seats—was last revived in 2007. That same year, David McVicar’s clever, fizzy 2005 Glyndebourne Festival staging, an irresistible English colonial-era conception crammed with eye-catching sets and Bollywood-inspired dance numbers, handily survived the transition from its 1,200-seat birthplace to the 3,500-capacity Lyric Opera of Chicago.
David Daniels, triumphant as Caesar at the Met and the Lyric Opera in 2007, brings his customary style and swagger to the title role. Natalie Dessay, plagued by rumors of decline, was a brilliant Cleopatra in a 2011 Paris outing newly available on DVD, and is ideally suited to the physicality of McVicar’s vision. Rounding out a solid cast are Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Alice Coote as Sesto and the dazzling Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo; Harry Bicket, who steered the Met’s 2007 run, provides stylish leadership.—Steve Smith
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