The Metropolitan Opera was just over 100 years old when on January 19, 1984 it premiered Rinaldo, its first ever opera by George Frideric Handel; Samson (not an opera, by the way), Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda have followed. History repeated itself on Thursday when Sir David McVicar’s eclectically entertaining production arrived, the second time the MET has resorted to importing a nearly decade-old Cesare from England. But with a hard-working cast crowned by a resurgent Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra, the Met has done an honorable job in bringing back this most popular and enjoyable of Handel’s great masterpieces.  

Focusing on Julius Caesar’s romantic pursuit of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra along with the quashing an insurgent rebellion by her brother Ptolemy, the work couldn’t be less like Shakespeare’s drama. Handel’s work revolves around six strikingly complex characters thrust into a maelstrom of sex and violence from which only four survive, forever changed by events we witness. As soon as Cesare arrives in Egypt, Tolomeo stirs the pot by murdering his rival Pompeo and has his henchman Achilla deliver the severed head to Cesare shattering the lives of Pompeo’s wife Cornelia and her young son Sesto. Cleopatra chooses to insert herself into the Romans’s plans for vengeance eventually winning the war as well as Cesare’s love and an Empress’s crown.

In less than a year after Cesare’s first performance in 1724 which starred Senesino and Francesca Cuzzoni, Tamerlano and Rodelinda also both premiered, an astonishing burst of creativity, all supported by fine libretti by Nicola Francesco Haym whose text for Cesare impressively juggles the many romantic and political entanglements. Although the Göttingen Festival’s 1920 Rodelinda was the first modern revival of any Handel opera, almost immediately Cesare became the most performed and recorded of all his 40 surviving operatic works.

Beginning in the early 1950s many singers one might not normally associate with the baroque performed it: Renata Tebaldi and Cesare Siepi portrayed the lovers in 1950…

and Siepi was also the Cesare when Elisabeth Schwarzkopf made her New York opera debut as Cleopatra (with pioneering American countertenor Russell Oberlin in one of his rare baroque opera appearances as Sesto) in a concert performance at Town Hall in 1958, where, later that year, Leontyne Price also sang the role. The Rome Opera cast in its 1955 revival Boris Christoff in the title role with Fedora Barbieri and Franco Corelli as mother and son. That same year Lisa della Casa scored a big success in Munich as Cleopatra and recorded several of her arias.

Likewise, Irmgard Seefried sang Cleopatra in Vienna and later recorded excerpts with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau under Karl Böhm.

Fischer-Dieskau also took part in the first complete (as well as worst) recording in which Karl Richter’s heavy hand and the transposition of all high male roles (Sesto was written as a trouser part) make it an exceedingly lugubrious experience. Not even Tatiana Troyanos’s efforts as Cleopatra (she’s all wrong for the part, to my ears) can save it, although Julia Hamari makes an affecting Cornelia.

One might have assumed that the “bad old days” of transposing these roles had ended long ago but just last fall the Frankfurt Opera cast a baritone in the title role of its new production!

As a result of Julius Rudel’s guerrilla counter-programming against the MET’s world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra, Handel’s fortunes brightened in the US and one of America’s greatest opera stars was born. When one listens to a “pirate” recording of that first New York City Opera Cesare, one can hear the audience hesitantly begin to respond to the work, but with each successive aria its pull asserts itself, particularly from Beverly Sills’s remarkable Cleopatra.

When I was in grade school and borrowed the RCA LPs of that production from the library, it would not be an exaggeration to say that they changed my life. Today, one could complain about the gross rearrangement of the score, the outrageously over-the-top ornaments and the transposition of the castrato roles of Cesare and Tolomeo, yet it remains a remarkable document, with an inspired Norman Treigle making the best case possible for a bass Cesare. Although I’ve heard many others sing the role since, Sills may be the best Cleopatra ever, but sadly the CD reissue has gone out of print.

I remained under such a Cesare spell that on my first trip to New York City– since my local library didn’t own it–I begged my parents to take me to King Karol so I could buy the LP of highlights that Joan Sutherland recorded, joined by Margreta Elkins, Marilyn Horne (as Cornelia), Richard Conrad (singing Handel’s revised music for a tenor Sesto) and the never-to-be forgotten Tolomeo of Monica Sinclair.

Much later, when the Met announced its first Cesare in 1988, I arranged to visit NYC to catch it. This version was mostly notorious for the reign of terror visited upon debuting conductor Trevor Pinnock by his Cleopatra, Kathleen Battle, but I remember it fondly. Those positive memories were reinforced last week when I listened to a recording of the premiere: Pinnock’s conducting is surprisingly fine and while Troyanos’s voice had thickened making the coloratura a bit gluey, she is a commanding Cesare. As Tolomeo Jeffrey Gall—whom I had seen several years earlier in the title role in Peter Sellars’s revelatory production—provided MET audiences with their first countertenor-encounter. Although too girlish, Battle’s Cleopatra is exceptionally well sung making it unfortunate she never ventured any Handel beyond this, her smashing Carnegie Hall Semele and a lone Solomon.

Subsequent MET revivals featured David Daniels’s impressive debut as Sesto and Stephanie Blythe’s breakthrough as Cornelia, stealing the show from a bland Jennifer Larmore, whose Cleopatra Sylvia McNair (previously an accomplished Handelian) crashed and burned, soon after giving up opera entirely. Six years ago Daniels successfully graduated to the title role although his alternate, Lawrence Zazzo, surpassed him both vocally and dramatically. Unfortunately Ruth Ann Swenson chose to complain to the press about she was being treating by the Met at the time of her first Cleopatra, an uninteresting, vocally uneven portrayal that did little to persuade anyone that she was being unfairly ignored. Her alternate, Danielle de Niese, proved as manic as Swenson had been stiff and sang poorly.

When the MET announced that it would be doing a new production for its 2012-2013 season, I was disappointed that it was bringing in an already much-seen production (as it had done with the English National Opera’s John Copley version in 1988) and was re-engaging the conductor, Cesare, Cornelia and Sesto from its 2007 revival. However, despite some quizzical eccentricities, this remounting of McVicar’s 2005 Glyndebourne Festival production looks beautiful on the MET stage and presents an accessible if not particularly probing spin on the work, one likely to be easily embraced by audiences who may otherwise be hesitant about committing to a long opera seria.

Much assisted by Paule Constable’s ravishing lighting, Robert Jones’s spare and versatile set allows rapid shifts from one location to another without interruption. McVicar reconceives the work as the British raj arrives in Egypt and its resulting culture clash, yet he remains inconsistent to time and place. For example, Cleopatra’s costumes (by Brigitte Reiffenstuel who also did the glamorous costumes for David Alden’s Ballo production) range from a Middle-Eastern fantasy to a flapper dress to a slinky evening gown to an elaborate 18th century confection for the finale. Tolomeo’s outfits similarly are all over the place.

Rather than Egypt, one is more often reminded of Colonial India, particularly through the character of Nireno, Cleopatra’s aide-de-camp and the pseudo-Bollywood choreography (created by Andrew George, who is, I believe, McVicar’s partner) that accompanies his aria, along with several of Cleopatra’s. While the dance numbers are admittedly entertaining—going over big with the audience—I don’t see the point of yet another purposeful anachronism—Cleopatra at one point jams on an air guitar. Happily, for the most part McVicar refuses to condescend to the material or get in the way of Handel and Haym, but the Broadway-ization of these numbers is distracting, but perhaps they were created to distract from the original Cleopatra’s mediocre singing.

While often excessively noisy (there’s lots of stomping, yowling, swords dropping), McVicar’s production clearly lays out the complicated relationships for the audience with precision and equal doses of pathos and humor, but it doesn’t challenge one’s usual notions of the opera nor does it attempt any examination of the political imperialism or sexual violence present.

Although the program states “Giulio Cesare in Egitto is performed in the Händel Complete Critical Edition by Frieder Zschoch,”  and despite its roughly four-hour-and-forty-minute running time, the work is indeed cut while still presenting a much fuller version than before ever seen at the MET. Cleopatra, Achilla and Sesto lose an aria each. And yet, the fact that the Met is willing to present such a full version of the work speaks well for its commitment to Handel.

In fact, a slight change in the musical edition results in the McVicar/Glyndebourne synopsis in the MET program being misleading. As has become common recently, the MET’s act two ends with Cleopatra’s great scene “Se pietà” while the scene that actually ends Handel’s act two is moved to the beginning of act three. However, whereas Sesto’s aria “L’aura che spira” was included at Glyndebourne, it has been cut at the MET so the scene of Achilla disarming Sesto in Tolomeo’s harem recounted in the synopsis doesn’t actually happen. Instead, Sesto gets his third act aria “La giustizia,” cut at Glyndebourne.

Returning to the podium for his fourth Handel run at the MET, Harry Bicket achieved again what he does best—guiding a 21st century opera orchestra to play an early 18th century work as if it did so every week. Except for some unfortunate horn bloopers in the introduction to the final scene, the orchestra sounded fresh and idiomatic throughout, although someone definitely needs to revisit the enthusiastic amplification of the theorbo which at times made it sound like a solo instrument rather than a part of the continuo. Ornamentation throughout the evening was tasteful, modest and unchallenging, although the da capo repeat of “Piangerò” was awkwardly unappealing.

As I had long feared the worst, Dessay was a delightful surprise. Although the voice has long since lost the evenness and consistency it once had, she sounded better than she has in years. Gone was the extremely careful management of every note that was so dismaying in her Violetta last season. In addition, she showed surprising stamina in a role that contains seven long, elaborate arias, along with the demanding choreography which she pulled off like a pro. Although not a Handelian by nature, she has made a number of satisfying recordings including Cleopatra, where she is in good voice and includes two fascinating never-before recorded alternate arias. All in all, I found her in far better form than in her previous encounter with Cleopatra in Paris in the Laurent Pelly production.

Dessay’s ease on stage and her consistently engaging dramatic choices unfortunately reflected badly on Daniels’s earnest but vague Cesare. While Daniels can be effective onstage in more one-dimensional roles like Arsamene in Serse, Cesare’s vibrant mix of soldier and lover sometimes eluded him. And unfortunately the years since his previous Met Cesare have not been kind, particularly in the extremely florid writing in which the role abounds. From the opening “Presti omai” onward, he was overmatched, frequently breaking the melismatic passages to grab an extra breath. An unexpectedly uneven “Aure deh per pieta” in the final act showed that the long evening was taking its toll, but earlier a finely done “Va tacito” proved that he can still occasionally recapture some of the old magic.

More veterans of the 2007 revival, Patricia Bardon and Alice Coote, returned as Cornelia and Sesto. Although Bardon’s voice nearly always rubs me the wrong way, I have to say that she was dramatically compelling as the much abused Roman widow while her honest and heartfelt singing made its mark, although the music never caressed the ear as it can when sung by a more even voice. While Bardon had improved from the earlier run, Coote struck me this time as distracted and miscast, missing the youthful impetuousness and growing angst that are at the heart of Sesto. The hushed, heartful duet with Cornelia which ends act one was her best moment; the numerous vengeance arias failed to make their mark—this was no monomaniacal Emily Thorne in the making.

Singing his 99th Tolomeo (at the young age of 34), Christophe Dumaux gave (along with Dessay) the evening’s most compleat performance. Reveling in the villainy yet leavening it with a wicked wit and singing with a pungent countertenor, Dumaux showed why he’s “owned” the role for nearly the past decade, yet one can also understand why he’s announced that he intends to drop the role (at least for a while) after a run in Paris later this spring. The curious casting of debutant Guido Loconsolo as Achilla must have been made with eye toward admiring photo spreads on Barihunks. If the singing of this veteran of the Glyndebourne production had been half as good as he looked, it would have been an impressive performance, but alas it was not.

If I was someone who booed, I would have booed the evening’s other debut, countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam’s irritatingly swishy Nireno, an incarnation that made Franklin Pangborn look butch. Having burst onto the scene as a naked L’Umana Fragilità in the Les Arts Florissants production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, he must be a McVicar favorite, having appeared in every Glyndebourne performance for reasons that elude me. Not only could I not understand a word he sang, his hooty performance of the infectious “Chi perde un momento” (an aria added by Handel to a later revival) was dreadful. Anthony Roth Costanzo would surely have been better utilized in this role rather than sitting around as the Tolomeo cover.

Thus it proved an evening that added up to much more than the sum of its uneven parts. I won’t swear that the long duration (30 arias!) passes in an instant, but it did feel a lot shorter than Parsifal—or Francesca da Rimini. Surely one of the greatest operas ever written, Giulio Cesare in Egitto inevitably casts its spell, particularly in this presentation to which everyone is deeply committed. As the title character declaims in the first act, Cesare venne e vide e vinse—Caesar came, saw and conquered!

The MET’s Cesare will be transmitted in HD to theaters throughout the world on April 27 while performances in the house continue through May 10.  For those who might want to sample more Handel, there are some interesting performances coming up nearby in the next two months.

At Stony Brook University on Long Island, Orlando will be presented twice during the weekend of April 13-14 by the Stony Brook Opera and Stony Brook Baroque Players. Orlando’s stunning mad scene and some of the composer’s most ravishing pastoral music make this a most appetizing venture. A combination of young professionals and advanced graduate students will be joined by a 25-piece period orchestra in this least-often performed of Handel’s great Ariosto trilogy.

After its superb Almira last seasonoperamission returns to the Gershwin Hotel May19-23 to present the US premiere of Handel’s second surviving opera Rodrigo. Written for Florence in 1707, it reveals the seismic changes which resulted from his stay in Italy and anticipates his masterpiece Agrippina which premiered in Venice two years later. This Rodrigo promises to be a most fascinating rediscovery.

For those who missed last year’s Almira, June brings the opera’s reappearance as the centerpiece of the biennial Boston Early Music Festival with performances both in Boston and Great Barrington. Directed by BEMF regular Gilbert Blin and led by its music directors Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette, Handel’s first opera , written in both German and Italian, stars Argentinian soprano Veronica Cangemi in the role and premieres on June 9.

The other must-hear event of the Festival will be a rare US appearance by the sublime Italian soprano Roberta Invernizzi singing Handel cantatas with Fabio Bonizzoni and La Risonanza on June 12 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.

The Handel and Haydn Society’s Jephtha first tours to Berkeley and Los Angeles in late April before returning home to Boston’s Symphony Hall on May 3 & 5. Handel’s intensely moving final oratorio will feature Joélle Harvey (who was so impressive recently in The English Concert’s Radamisto) as Iphis.

And what promises to be one of the events of the season occurs in late May in Québec and Montréal where Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy join Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton and Andrew Foster-Williams in Theodora, Handel’s penultimate oratorio of Christian love and sacrifice. It’s hard to imagine a better lineup for this great music drama.

Photos: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera