Giulio Cesare, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Glyndebourne

A comical, sexy take on history
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The Independent Culture

The trick for today's audiences is to play on the implausibilities of opera seria without undermining the emotional truth; to tilt at the conventions while celebrating the form. And under the terms of McVicar's theatrical lexicon that invariably means tempering the high drama with high camp. It's a dangerous game.

Giulio Cesare was the first and most sumptuous of the three operas that Handel served up to his adoring audiences at the King's Theatre in London's Haymarket during 1724. On the evidence of the first-night reception, McVicar's Glyndebourne audience was no less adoring. But then he well knows how to quietly scandalise an English audience without alienating them, and how to get them onside. And like any Scot worth his salt he knows how to play on the conceit of the English for viewing art from their own perspective.

Perhaps the most delicious thing about this staging is the way in which the English have insinuated their way into ancient Egypt. Caesar and the victorious Romans arrive in scene one looking for all the world like Empire-building Brits. No, they are Empire-building Brits. Why, they are even filming the proceedings for posterity.

From then on it's open season on sense and sensibility. Robert Jones's handsome set - a series of Romanesque proscenium arches receding to a glinting, undulating Nile - is timeless. But as the evening progresses, miniature sail ships become frigates, which in turn become cruise liners as McVicar romps his way through history.

Egypt is "exotic" thanks to draped silks and glitzy costumes from Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Movement director Andrew George has devised a series of routines that are essentially whatever the Egyptian equivalent of Bollywood might be. It's all very colourful, comical and sexy - fashion-conscious clichés for history's tourists. When Cleopatra mounts her lavish seduction of Caesar, the stage is strewn with stars. Caesar - his senses ravished - runs into the night, the silk drapes parting for him like an imaginary Red Sea.

Actually, Cleopatra is more at the heart of this production than any I have seen, due in part to the sensational stage presence of the 25-year-old American Danielle de Niese. It has been a while since I saw a more assured debut on a British stage. Vocal accomplishment and the attendant fine-tuning will doubtless grow with experience, but for her sheer relish of performing, her movie-star looks and her winning personality, she was a complete knock-out. Indeed, she was so on top of her jubilant pay-off aria "Da tempeste il legno infranto" that the vocal and physical virtuosity were virtually inseparable. That's rare.

No wonder Caesar fell. It has to be said, though, that the wonderful Sarah Connolly sounded a little overwhelmed in the role, the martial arias weighing heavily on her soft-grained voice which, predictably, sat more memorably with the lyric departures. Otherwise there was depth and pathos from Patricia Bardon's Cornelia, a feisty Sesto from Angelika Kirchschlager and a Tolomeo from counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux where the pitch really was on a par with the petulance.

But McVicar and his high-spirited cast were by no means the only source of energy in an evening (whatever its pros and cons) positively fizzing with it. William Christie and the five-star Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment by turns galvanised and duly basked in Handel's most richly-endowed score like its seemingly endless succession of great numbers might be going out of fashion. That'll be the day.

To August 20 (01273 813813)

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