Hail this Caesar

Caught up with Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” – the last of The Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” simulcasts this season – at City Center 15 Cinema De Lux in White Plains recently and had a rollicking good time, albeit five hours of a rollicking good time.

David McVicar’s production of the Caesar/Cleopatra mating dance, originally staged for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, features some of the conventions of Handel’s own day. (So the rolling seas are really rolling logs.) But McVicar has updated the opera to the cusp of the Roaring ’20s, which works well for an American audience that is enthralled to “The Great Gatsby” once more and whose sense of empire has always been more British than Roman anyway.

By updating the opera, however, McVicar also brings it closer to the East-West tensions that have shaped history and our own moment. So when Pompey’s grieving widow, Cornelia (mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon), spits at the tormenting Achilla (baritone Guido Loconsolo) as a barbarian, we see a foreshadowing of our own distrust of the Middle East.

The setting also gives costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel a chance to work her magic across an array of styles, from harem pants to flapper dresses.

As hostess Reneé Fleming noted, “Giulio Cesare” is hit-parade Handel. Conductor Harry Bicket, who doubled on the continuo, even told her during one of the intermissions, that you almost wish there were a dull aria to catch your breath. Not a chance. The music is  glorious, and the singers all reveled in a chance not only to spin the coloratura flights that capture the raw emotions of characters but to dance as well. This was particularly true of soprano Natalie Dessay, whose Cleopatra shimmied across the stage in a manner befitting an opera star who started out as a ballet dancer. (Yoga, Dessay told Fleming, helped her prepare for the strenuous role.)

But with apologies to Mae West, too much of good thing may not always be wonderful. All those repeats that are the hallmark of baroque music weigh on the clock and the mind after awhile.

When Fleming said, “Here now is the conclusion of ‘Giulio Cesare,’” one audience member blurted out, “Thank God.”

Still, this is a “Caesar” worth rendering unto.

Missed “The Met: Live in HD”? Beginning June 19, The Metropolitan Opera and NCM Fathom Events will once again present Summer HD Encores, a series of encore performances from the series in nearly 400 select U.S. cinemas nationwide through NCM’s exclusive Digital Broadcast Network. This summer’s encore series offers four popular “Live in HD” events, including the most-attended in the program’s history, Bizet’s “Carmen” (June 19); followed by Verdi’s Il Trovatore” (June 26), Rossini’s Armida” (July 10), and Verdi’s La Traviata” (July 17).

Tickets for “The Met: Live in HD” Summer 2013 Encores, shown in cinemas at 7 p.m. Wednesdays in all time zones, are available at FathomEvents.com or participating theater box offices.

The Met’s current season ends May 11. Many of the offerings for the 2013-14 season will have a decidedly Russian flavor, beginning with “Eugene Onegin,” Tchaikovsky’s tale of lovers at cross-purposes. For more, visit metopera.org/HD.

And look for our profile of tenor Matthew Polenzani, who’ll be featured in The Met’s new “Rigoletto” and in the “Live in HD” “Così Fan Tutte,” as WAG goes “On the Road” in June.

 

 

 

 

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