Of all the great composers for the stage, Handel sits least comfortably in the Metropolitan Opera House. Even his spectacles rely on intimate contact with the audience in order for one to appreciate their subtle dramatic character. But that’s no excuse not to try and accommodate these rich works, and the Met has been searching to find ways over the past fifteen years without, so far, hitting on any impressive solutions. Perhaps the least of them, Giulio Cesare, has just returned looking no better than it did in 1988. John Pascoe’s Sheraton Towers décor seems even tackier and more synthetic on second viewing, a clutter of ornate obelisks, garish sunbursts, comic-book palms and pyramids, gauzy curtains, throw pillows, and assorted cheap Egyptian souvenirs. Nor does John Copley’s direction improve with age, an unimaginative approach to formal Baroque opera conventions that mainly keeps the characters circling the stage aimlessly in a state of perpetual motion. The whole chintzy affair tells us nothing at all useful about the opera.
At least the musical ingredients have been upgraded, thanks to conductor John Nelson’s historically informed, astutely balanced direction and the presence of no fewer than three distinguished countertenors. David Daniels, in his Met debut as Sesto, sings the gorgeous music Handel gave this tortured teenager with extraordinary eloquence and musical urgency, qualities Daniels shares with Brian Asawa as Tolomeo, even if that elegant voice seems almost too lovely and soft-grained for this scheming villain. Countertenor No. 3, Daniel Taylor, has fewer opportunities as Cleopatra’s intriguing confidant, Nireno, but he makes them count with his sweet tone and secure technique. Stephanie Blythe matches these virtuosos note for note as she transforms Cornelia into a figure of true tragic dignity.
Unfortunately, the two protagonists are not in the same league. Despite a generous expenditure of energy and bravura, Jennifer Larmore mostly draws a blank in the title role, suggesting little of Caesar’s political savvy or militancy while struggling with a voice that has neither sufficient color nor range to deliver the music with the necessary panache. Most depressing of all is Sylvia McNair, whose insufferably arch Cleopatra projects almost nothing of the fabled character’s charm, allure, and infinite variety. Worse, her debilitated soprano now lacks both a firm tonal center and the ability to focus squarely on the note. Such technically insecure singing is unacceptable by any vocal standards I can think of, but different ears hear different sounds. Many at the first performance, including at least one esteemed colleague, seemed to find the soprano’s pitch-shy mewing utterly enchanting.