Then and Now: A Close Look at David McVicar’s Production of Giulio Cesare

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Learning Objectives

Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about this Met production—in short, to see themselves as Giulio Cesare experts. This open conversation will also set the stage for a more focused assessment of this particular interpretation of Handel’s work. As students have seen, the setting for this production is neither ancient Egypt, per se, nor Handel’s own 18th-century milieu. Its combination of aesthetic styles has been described as “post-modern” or “post-colonial”. But even viewers unfamiliar with those concepts can’t miss the rich array of visuals that they describe. It will be useful for the class as awhole to catalog interesting features they noticed. Here is a partial list:

COSTUMES:

  • British military uniforms inspired by 19th and early 20th-century styles, including everything from ruffled white shirts to pith helmets
  • The bowtie, tweed jacket, and high Wellington boots of a 19th-century British schoolboy
  • Exotic “oriental” silks and brocades
  • Turkish fezzes (cylindrical hats)
  • Cesare’s Roman military breastplate
  • Kilts

MOVEMENTS:

  • Dance steps, gestures, and stylized facial expressions inspired by the“Bollywood” movie musicals produced in India
  • Dancing in the style of late 20th-century music videos
  • Physical contact between performers, conveying sexual and sometimes violent overtones in the relations between, for instance, Cleopatra and Tolomeo, Cleopatra and Cesare, or Cornelia and Sesto

SETS AND PROPS:

  • 19th-century British frigates
  • 20th-century airships (Zeppelins)
  • Weaponry ranging from scimitars to revolvers
  • Modern binoculars
  • Fashion sunglasses
  • Umbrellas and hat racks
  • Rattan armchairs
  • The hand-cranked movie camera recording events at Cesare’s court

What do your students make of the combination between these visuals and the ancient Egyptian setting of Giulio Cesare? Focus questions might include:

  • What sorts of sets, costumes, and actions do students feel are appropriate in today’s presentations of yesterday’s works—and what aren’t? Why?
  • Do all these elements enhance the audience’s experience of the underlying music and text? Are any of them distracting? Why?
  • If Giulio Cesare were presented in a more historically consistent setting, would audiences today know enough about history and music to appreciate it? Is it disrespectful to assume otherwise?
  • What kinds of creative decisions respect and preserve the integrity of a classic work—and what kinds don’t? How is it possible to draw a line? 

In addressing such questions, your students join an international community of audiences and critics grappling with the relationship between the “then” of an opera’s creation and the “now” of its production. Depending on their strengths and interests, they may enjoy following the discussionup by:

  • taking pro/con positions and formally debating the merits of this production of Giulio Cesare,
  • writing a review of Giulio Cesare—a persuasive essay that states andsupports a critical stance, or
  • writing “notes” for the creators of this production, including suggestions for improvement and, of course, arguments supporting those suggestions.