On screen: The MET live at USCB presents ‘Giulio Cesare’

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By Alan Schuster

A preview of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” by The Met Opera: Live at the USCB Center for the Arts on Saturday, April 27, 12:00 noon.

If the Met’s recent production of a stylized “Rigoletto” wandering the dark streets of Las Vegas can win over critics and fans, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that even a 300-year-old baroque opera like Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” can be just as provocative.  In this case, Caesar and Cleopatra are time-warped from the declining days of the Roman Empire to the imperialism of late 19th century Britain in what director David McVicar calls a “historical romp.”

Arts-Opera cesare daniels dessayGeorge Frideric Handel was born in Germany, but interestingly spent most of his creative career living in England and writing Italian operas for his benefactor, London’s Royal Academy of Music. As such, he wrote primarily for the “important” people, not just for those who were often titled, but also for the singers they paid to see and hear.

Having never seen this opera performed, and being familiar with only a few of its exceptionally fine moments, I’ve combined some highlights from three recent reviews by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press.

Headlines:  “Rendered Unto Caesar, Perfectly,” “Hailing Caesar With Seduction,” “Handel in Bollywood Comes to the Met.”

Overall Impressions: “A new Met offering, and a great one … Like a Christmas pudding, McVicar’s take on Giulio Cesare is so stuffed full of treats and surprises that even if some are not to your taste, you’re likely to enjoy what you find in the next slice … McVicar cheerfully admits to playing fast and loose with any notions of historical accuracy or consistency. Instead he takes elements of ancient Rome and Egypt and mixes them with British colonialism, the flapper era of the 1920s and dance moves straight out of Indian movie musicals … a potent mix of wit and pathos … it’s an audacious blend of serious, comic, romantic and adventurous elements … a masterpiece The Met is treating with just the right mix of respect and irreverence … This funny yet poignant staging of Handel’s opera was full of musical and theatrical bliss … It’s a long opera, four and a half hours, including two intermissions, but the audience rose to their feet to give an exuberant ovation to the excellent cast.”

The Performers: Countertenor David Daniels (born in Spartanburg, SC): “Remarkable, singing with his full-bodied sound, emphatic delivery and technical command … has demonstrated that he is the master of this repertoire … every phrase hit the mark beautifully, and he made Cesare amusingly pompous as well as heroic … has tremendous presence and sings much of his music with eloquence. But at this stage of his career, his middle register sounds overpowered, and rapid coloratura puts a strain on his breath control.”

Soprano Natalie Dessay “was astonishing, singing with lyricism, sparkle and some outrageous vocal ornaments, ranging from conniving flirtiness to abject despair … she is mostly in good voice, tossing off coloratura passagework, and singing with melting richness in the sad ones. Overall, she gives a valiant and endearing performance … She was at her best in her more melancholy arias, like the haunting “Piangero, la sorte mia,” though even there it was apparent that her top notes no longer come easily.” (An aside: Other Cleopatras have fared much worse on Broadway. In the mid-thirties, New York Post critic John Mason Brown wrote: “Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra — and sank.”)

Countertenor Christophe Dumaux “steals every scene he is in as the calculating Tolomeo. His voice is bright, clear, precise and as agile physically as he is vocally. In one taunting aria, he executes a full body flip as easily as tossing off a trill … Mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon brought a plush, warm voice to Cornelia, and another mezzo, Alice Coote is wonderful as Sextus.”

Conductor and Orchestra: “Harry Becket knows better than anyone how to make a modern orchestra understand baroque music … he draws a lithe, lyrical and stylish performance of this great score … Every moment was full of life and the orchestra felt like a cushion supporting the singers.”

Here’s some good news. The Met’s 2013-14 HD transmissions beginning in October will consist of 10 live performances. Among them will be two Puccini masterpieces, Tosca and La Boheme; Tchaikovsky’s superb Eugene Onegin; and three of the finest comedy operas ever composed — Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte and Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella). In addition, the Center for the Arts is planning to renew its summer Encore series with four gems from previous Met HD presentations. Tentatively being considered are Verdi’s La Traviata and Il Trovatore, Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Bizet’s Carmen.  Stay tuned.

Tickets: Adults $20; OLLI members $16; Students under 18, $10. All seats are assigned and the box office opens at USCB Center for the Arts one hour prior to the 12:00 noon curtain time, or call 521-4145.