04/05/2013 01:03 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

Met Opera: Caesar And A Sexy Cleo Romp In A Vibrant 'Giulio Cesare'

If anyone still harbors doubts that Handel's operas can be excitingly staged, the Met's smashing new production of Giulio Cesare, which had its gala premiere last night, will put them to rest.

With David Daniels in the title role and Natalie Dessay as a hot and sexy Cleopatra, the imaginative staging by David McVicar, originally created for the Glyndebourne Festival, is a tour of the British Empire in its heyday that somehow never loses sight of the serious undertones of Handel's most popular opera.

It's a stunning feat that audiences around the world will be able to see on April 27 when the Met presents it as its last offering in this season's Live in HD series, simulcast to some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries.

For one of the classics of opera seria, McVicar has injected a lot of buffa into his unique take on the storied Caesar-Cleopatra affair. The sets and costumes leap from era to era, never settling in one place for long, but grounded in the British period of colonization, especially the Raj. And for an opera originally titled Giulio Cesare in Egitto, about the only hint of Egypt comes in a blow-up of an ancient map of the port of Alexandria that serves as a backdrop in some scenes.

The curtain opens to a view of a nondescript sea in the background with a fleet of mini-Mayflower ships bobbing on the waves. Sweepers in fezzes and johdpurs clear a path for a detachment of British Redcoats who march in wearing pith helmets and bearing foot lockers, followed by Caesar sporting a breastplate under his great coat.

The eclecticism gallops along in subsequent scenes. Cleopatra's chamber looks like a Turkish harem with plush gold, purple, green, and red drapes billowing across the stage. When she first button-holes Caesar at Pompey's funeral, she is wearing a black Jazz era cocktail dress, slit up the side, like a flapper in mourning.

McVicar is nothing if not original. When Sextus, Pompey's son, vows revenge for his father's murder, a giant hand drops from the flies, reminiscent of the Fickle Finger of Fate in an old Monty Python skit. And when Ptolemy and Caesar first meet, they sing their duet while performing a sort of 18th-century English country dance of the type popularized in the Jane Austen movies of the 1990's.

The list could go on and on. In one scene Ptolemy and his entourage are dressed for an English garden party, in plus fours and with one carrying a butterfly net. There are times when McVicar's Giulio Cesare seems more like a lavish Gilbert & Sullivan production than opera seria. But it all hangs together, and the result is a thrilling operatic experience that is a feast for the eyes and ears.

Daniels was in excellent voice as Cesare, a role he performed here six seasons ago. That occasion marked the first time the Met used a countertenor for the part. Giulio Cesare was added to the Met repertory only in 1988 and previously the title role was sung by a soprano. From the opening aria "Va, tacito," Daniels mastered the difficult run of trills and sang with force and clarity throughout.

Dessay was simply brilliant as Cleopatra. She has always been one of the best acting sopranos, and in Giulio Cesare she ranges seamlessly from seductress to desperate defeat to jubilant triumph. Her Act 2 aria "V'adoro pupille" was full of come-hither allure and her "Piangero" was imbued in a grief that her sustained vibrato carried to every corner of the house. And she can dance.

The countertenor Christophe Dumaux, with a pencil mustache, was a portrait evil as Ptolemy and Alice Coote was excellent as Sextus, the one part Handel designated as a trouser role. Other standouts in the cast included Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Pompey's widow, and two promising Met debuts -- Guido Loconsolo as Achillas, Prolemly's general, and Rachid Ben Abdeslam as Nirenus, Cleopatra's confidant.

Harry Bicket conducted with élan and played the harpsichord in the continuo, and David Chan performed the splendid violin solo onstage.