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Review: Giulio Cesare (Glyndebourne)

David McVicar's 2005 production returns to Glyndebourne in triumph

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Sarah Connolly as Giulio Cesare and Joélle Harvey as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare (Glyndebourne)
© Bill Cooper

Most legendary productions only survive in memory and the few that live on tend to feel whiskery, but here's one that dances like a young'un. David McVicar's 2005 production of Handel's Giulio Cesare was seminal in showing that a director who dares can make four hours of recitative and da capo arias zing by in a twinkling. With Glyndebourne's jeroboam-sized intervals, Sunday's premiere of this revival began at 2.45 pm and finished at 8.25 pm, and I don't know where the time went.

Handel relates the tale of Julius Caesar's love affair with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, in broad brush strokes and astonishing musical variety. The pugnacious storyline is told with a strong vein of humour - a characteristic that McVicar exploits with relish.

He has been assisted in this revival by Greg Eldridge, whose own pocket-sized staging for Bury Court Opera had distinction in its own right, and they are joined not just by the director's original conducting colleague, William Christie, but by a mighty handful of the original cast. Countertenor Christophe Dumaux returns in style as Tolomeo, Cleopatra's baleful brother, and mezzo Patricia Bardon – in glorious. heartbreaking voice – reprises the role of Cornelia, widow of the murdered Pompeo.

Sarah Connolly was their original Cesare, back in her pre-Dame days, and she too has returned, brilliantly physical in startling make-up and a swaggering red greatcoat. Her notes were all present and correct on opening night, even in the cruellest rapid runs, but her vocal performance felt underpowered. I'm sure it will bed in.

All the newcomers delivered magnificently. As Cleopatra, Joélle Harvey sang sublimely and tripped lightly through Andrew George's modern and cheekily allusive choreography, a sexy grin never far from her lips. She negotiated some complex stage manoeuvres with ease, none more than her bath-and-bed scene around "Venere bella". Anna Stéphany was in ravishing vocal form as Sesto, Cornelia's avenging son (although – note to the director – never aim a pistol at the audience as she does), and countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim seduced the house with his aide-de-camp turn as Tolomeo's half-decent sidekick Nireno.

The playful designs by Robert Jones meld a baroque box theatre with the language of the modern musical, as do Brigitte Reiffenstuel's fabulously full-on costumes. Scene switches to Egypt are depicted by swishing fabric curtains so we always know where we are. Colour and movement are everywhere; extravagance rules… although not in the pit. On opening night Christie conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with refinement rather than pizzazz, and occasionally his cautious sepia shades fell out of kilter with the onstage Technicolor.

Glyndebourne is giving this revival a thumping dozen outings this summer – not bad for Handel anywhere – and it deserves to sell every seat. One or two of the laughs are cheaply earned but no one could begrudge them across such a long evening. Some of the 19th-20th century updates feel superfluous, especially the flotilla of steamships and dirigibles that meanders upstage towards the end, but the finale is so joyously staged you won't care. For anyone who's wary of Handel or fears his heavenly lengths, here's the show to make converts. It's impossible not to love every minute.