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Natalie Dessay Cleopatra Met

If anyone still harbors doubts that Handel's operas can be excitingly staged, the Met's smashing new production of Giulio Cesare, which had its gala premiere last night, will put them to rest.

With David Daniels in the title role and Natalie Dessay as a hot and sexy Cleopatra, the imaginative staging by David McVicar, originally created for the Glyndebourne Festival, is a tour of the British Empire in its heyday that somehow never loses sight of the serious undertones of Handel's most popular opera.

It's a stunning feat that audiences around the world will be able to see on April 27 when the Met presents it as its last offering in this season's Live in HD series, simulcast to some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries.

For one of the classics of opera seria, McVicar has injected a lot of buffa into his unique take on the storied Caesar-Cleopatra affair. The sets and costumes leap from era to era, never settling in one place for long, but grounded in the British period of colonization, especially the Raj. And for an opera originally titled Giulio Cesare in Egitto, about the only hint of Egypt comes in a blow-up of an ancient map of the port of Alexandria that serves as a backdrop in some scenes.

The curtain opens to a view of a nondescript sea in the background with a fleet of mini-Mayflower ships bobbing on the waves. Sweepers in fezzes and johdpurs clear a path for a detachment of British Redcoats who march in wearing pith helmets and bearing foot lockers, followed by Caesar sporting a breastplate under his great coat.

The eclecticism gallops along in subsequent scenes. Cleopatra's chamber looks like a Turkish harem with plush gold, purple, green, and red drapes billowing across the stage. When she first button-holes Caesar at Pompey's funeral, she is wearing a black Jazz era cocktail dress, slit up the side, like a flapper in mourning.

McVicar is nothing if not original. When Sextus, Pompey's son, vows revenge for his father's murder, a giant hand drops from the flies, reminiscent of the Fickle Finger of Fate in an old Monty Python skit. And when Ptolemy and Caesar first meet, they sing their duet while performing a sort of 18th-century English country dance of the type popularized in the Jane Austen movies of the 1990's.

The list could go on and on. In one scene Ptolemy and his entourage are dressed for an English garden party, in plus fours and with one carrying a butterfly net. There are times when McVicar's Giulio Cesare seems more like a lavish Gilbert & Sullivan production than opera seria. But it all hangs together, and the result is a thrilling operatic experience that is a feast for the eyes and ears.

Daniels was in excellent voice as Cesare, a role he performed here six seasons ago. That occasion marked the first time the Met used a countertenor for the part. Giulio Cesare was added to the Met repertory only in 1988 and previously the title role was sung by a soprano. From the opening aria "Va, tacito," Daniels mastered the difficult run of trills and sang with force and clarity throughout.

Dessay was simply brilliant as Cleopatra. She has always been one of the best acting sopranos, and in Giulio Cesare she ranges seamlessly from seductress to desperate defeat to jubilant triumph. Her Act 2 aria "V'adoro pupille" was full of come-hither allure and her "Piangero" was imbued in a grief that her sustained vibrato carried to every corner of the house. And she can dance.

The countertenor Christophe Dumaux, with a pencil mustache, was a portrait evil as Ptolemy and Alice Coote was excellent as Sextus, the one part Handel designated as a trouser role. Other standouts in the cast included Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Pompey's widow, and two promising Met debuts -- Guido Loconsolo as Achillas, Prolemly's general, and Rachid Ben Abdeslam as Nirenus, Cleopatra's confidant.

Harry Bicket conducted with élan and played the harpsichord in the continuo, and David Chan performed the splendid violin solo onstage.

As the story begins, Caesar and his men land in Alexandria. He has put down a rebellion by his rival Pompey and chased him to Egypt, where Cleopatra rules in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with her ruthless brother, Ptolemy. Thinking he can gain Caesar’s backing, Ptolemy presents the emperor with a gift: the severed head of Pompey. Caesar is shocked.

This creates an opportunity for Cleopatra to win the emperor’s favor and claim the throne for herself. The action follows two story lines: Cleopatra’s attempt to woo Caesar for strategic reasons, only to find herself romantically vulnerable, and the effort of Pompey’s widow and son, the majestic Cornelia and the earnest Sextus, to avenge him.

When we first meet Cleopatra, she mocks her brother in a brilliant aria, “Non disperar,” saying that while he is fated to lose the throne, he at least may find love. The aria is staged like a dance number from a Bollywood movie. Ms. Dessay does a nimbly choreographed routine with two female dancers who mimic each other’s moves, complete with arm thrusts and head swivels matched to the stabbing rhythms in the music. As a young woman, the petite Ms. Dessay studied to be a dancer and actress. She is in her element in these scenes, executing maneuvers with a droll comic look and loose physicality.

Ms. Dessay has had some vocal setbacks in recent years and a shaky run last season as Violetta in the Met’s production of Verdi’s “Traviata.” If she is still not at her best, she is mostly in good voice, tossing off coloratura passagework, singing with sparkle in the perky arias and with melting richness in the sad ones. Now and then she seems distracted by the task of singing. In the great aria of seduction “V’adoro pupille,” Cleopatra, pretending to be Lydia, a noblewoman who has been robbed of her birthright by Ptolemy, tries to enthrall Caesar with a serenade. Ms. Dessay mostly sang with plaintive beauty. But there was some audible effort in her breathing and caution in her delivery.

Overall, though, she gives a valiant and endearing performance. When she first presents herself to Caesar as the wronged “Lydia,” she is dressed as a flapper in mourning, all in black, with sunglasses, yet holding a cocktail for comfort.

Mr. Daniels, who played Caesar at the Met in 2007 for the last run of John Copley’s dull 1988 production of this opera, is again remarkable, singing with his full-bodied sound, emphatic delivery and technical command. He conveys the emperor’s vulnerability when he finds himself bewitched by Cleopatra or touched by the anguish of the suffering Cornelia. But when called for, Mr. Daniels can make fun of himself, as in a spirited aria when Caesar must rush from Cleopatra’s chambers to avoid the advancing forces of Ptolemy. As Mr. Daniels stops to dispatch bravura run after bravura run, Ms. Dessay’s frantic Cleopatra keeps trying to push him out the door to safety.

The whole cast is terrific. The French countertenor Christophe Dumaux steals every scene he is in as the calculating Ptolemy. His voice is bright, clear and strong. Tall, trim and athletic, he is a natural onstage. In one taunting aria, he executes a full body flip as easily as tossing off a trill.

The mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon brought a plush, warm voice and dignity to Cornelia. The mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is wonderful as Sextus. The character first appears looking like a British schoolboy in a gray suit with knickers. But Ms. Coote, singing with dusky tone and penetrating sound, conveys the challenge this young man faces in trying to avenge his father.

The hearty baritone Guido Loconsolo, in a notable Met debut, is a muscular and menacing Achillas, a general and a power-hungry adviser to Ptolemy. The countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam, also in a Met debut, brings vocal sheen and comic antics as the eunuch Nirenus, the confidant of Cleopatra and Ptolemy. And the baritone John Moore is a vocally robust Curius, a Roman tribune in a Scottish kilt. A kilt? Why not? In one scene Cleopatra appears in jodhpurs.

Mr. Bicket draws a lithe, lyrical and stylish performance of this great score from the Met orchestra, reduced in numbers and complemented by a Baroque continuo group. The violinist David Chan, a concertmaster in the orchestra, got into the act. During one of Mr. Daniels’s arias, Mr. Chan traded ornamented phrases with him while bounding about onstage in a costume, a fez on his head. That is the kind of thing a violinist is seldom prepared for at a conservatory.

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