Giulio Cesare, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes

Va-va voom: Cleo pulls in to the fast lane

Designers Robert Jones (sets) and Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes) have plundered several centuries, empires, and art-forms for eye-catching details to charm, beguile, and distract. Fellini-esque waves wink like candy-canes on the Alexandria shoreline, fezzes collide with topis, jodhpurs brush against harem pants. The frigid columns of Caesar's camp melt into the billowing veils of a silent movie seraglio, while the movements of the principals and extras are as intricately stylised as a Bollywood routine. Motifs of colonialism and orientalism are everywhere. (By the final act, the tall ships on the horizon have become aircraft carriers.) But McVicar merely toys with these issues, and offers archetypes instead of characters.

Remember Madama Butterfly and The Rape of Lucretia? The days when this director invested serious intellectual energy into his more honourable characters are seemingly gone. As in Faust, Carmen, and Rigoletto, it is the vamps and thugs that attract McVicar's, and therefore our, attention: cracking bull-whips, playing footsie, and using Pompey's funeral urn as an umbrella stand. Which leaves Patricia Bardon (Cornelia), Angelika Kirchschlager (Sesto), and Sarah Connolly (Caesar) in the difficult position of looking variously wounded, traumatised, and noble for several hours, while Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo), Christopher Maltman (Achilla), and Danielle De Niese (Cleopatra) have lots of fun playing Mr Mad, Mr Bad, and Ms Dangerous to Know.

For De Niese, last seen as Nérine in José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu's production of Les Paladins at the Barbican, this is a career-making showcase. Though light of voice, she is a persuasive seductress: shimmying her way through Cleopatra's arias as flapper, odalisque, amazon, and queen, with lithe coloratura and stylish phrasing. V'adoro, pupille, with its silken on-stage accompaniment of violins, viola, cello, gamba, lute, harp, oboe and bassoon, is as intimate as a kiss, Da tempesta as bold as a slap. Dumaux's steely, brittle counter-tenor is ideal for Tolomeo (here played as the evil twin to Big Brother's belly-dancing transvestite Kemal), while Maltman makes easy work of the grotesque Achilla. Both are miraculously returned to life at the end of the opera.

Bardon's gravity, Kirchschlager's intensity, and Connolly's sincerity and sustained beauty of tone make for the most satisfying and meaningful moments in what is otherwise an entertaining, if shallow, production. Poor, brutalised Sesto is Kirchschlager's first Handel role, and what a revelation it is to hear such an uninhibited and distinctive musician sing these arias under William Christie's authoritative direction. From the propulsive sea-sprayed overture to the plaintive flute obbligato of Cornelia's Priva son d'ogni conforto and the glorious horn solo in Caesar's Va, tacito, this is a dramatic performance from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

To 20 August, 01273 813813

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