• Sir David McVicar

Q&A with Sir David McVicar | In Focus: Giulio Cesare
Giulio Cesare Photo Gallery

Giulio Cesare has been Handel’s most popular opera since the composer’s own time, and it played a major part in the Baroque revival of the past decades. What attracts you to it?
I think it’s one of the most multifaceted, kaleidoscopic, entertaining, wonderful pieces of operatic writing anyone has ever put on stage. Its sheer variety of tone is one of the reasons why I love it so much. It is a semi-serious, semi-comic, semi-romantic adventure story. It’s packed with action, fantastic characterization, and fantastic music, and it really takes the audience on a historical romp through a fictional account of the lives of these great historical characters. And yet somehow it remains incredibly true to the kernel of reality inside the story of the young Cleopatra seducing the middle-aged Caesar, and about the alliance between their two empires. It works on so many different levels. It’s a piece I’ve been obsessed and fascinated with for a good 20 years.

Your production features a wide range of visual elements, including some early-20th-century costumes, but it’s not a strict update. Tell us about the setting.
The nature of Handelian opera, to me, precludes any kind of attempt at historical accuracy, because it’s not within the character of the pieces themselves. The original productions were played in 18th-century costume. So I didn’t feel in any way bound to keep with an ancient Alexandria. It allowed us to play fast and loose with period, and to be quite playful, as the opera itself is quite playful. In our production, the conquering Romans become synonymous with the conquering Britons of the 19th century, when they held the Suez Canal. And we play with Cleopatra’s many disguises, taking her through a range of cultures and periods. At one point, she’s in an exquisite little Clara Bow flapper dress as she seduces Caesar, simply because it seems like the most appropriate costume. If I’m going to go to a cocktail party and seduce the emperor of Rome, I’m going to wear a fantastic little cocktail number—so she does, and she pulls it off with aplomb. The Alexandrian culture was essentially a mixture of the Greek and Egyptian cultures. It was a thriving harbor city, a meeting point of many different cultures, races, people. Everyone was flocking to Alexandria. So we wanted to get that sense of melting pot across by drawing on as many influences as we could find.

Including Bollywood-inspired dance routines…
One of the big ideas for delineating the world of Cleo and Ptolemy was the British
Raj. We borrowed a great deal from Indian culture in order to talk about that clash of imperialism with an indigenous culture, and the incomprehension of the imperialists as they come into contact with these people. They fail to understand the subtleties of this culture. That also led to the Bollywood influence for some of the dance numbers. Indian cinema is fantastically entertaining. You can tell deeply serious stories, and then suddenly you have a wonderful, big dance routine. And then the story carries on. There’s something so beautifully apposite with opera about that for me. That’s why we play with the idea.

If you had to describe what to expect from Giulio Cesare to an audience who has never seen it, what would you say?
You’ll be laughing one minute and crying the next. The emotional scope, the dramatic scope, the humorous scope is just so far-reaching… You get romance, you get drama, you get moments of political wheeling-and-dealing, complex family relationships—as well as real emotion and tragedy. It’s a miracle, and it has enabled me to express everything I feel is important about opera. —Edited by Philipp Brieler

This interview was first published online in March 2013 and in the Met’s Playbill in April 2013.