If the thought of four and a half hours of baroque opera seems, uh, too much to Handel, not to worry. For one thing, there is a calculated box-supper break to keep up your strength but, most importantly, this imaginative and spirited production makes the time pass very quickly. Lyric Opera has come a long way from the days when singers would stand statically and wobble their way through Handel oratorios with excessive vibrato at a snail’s pace. In the pit are no less than two harpsichords, therebo and two chamber orchestras, one that actually appears onstage in Act II and another pit orchestra, all skillfully directed from one of the harpsichords by French conductor Emmanuelle Haïm, the first female conductor ever at Lyric Opera and a previous discovery of Chicago Opera Theater. Ornamentation, or decorating a melodic line after being stated once and following a contrasting section, is what baroque singing is all about and there are several really first-class purveyors of this art in this production, the best of which come directly out of the Glyndebourne production where this colorful contemporary production originated. And though Julius Caesar may be the title character, it is Australian soprano Danielle De Niese’s Cleopatra who steals the show, hook, line and sinker. From the moment she takes the stage as the sexiest Cleopatra since Elizabeth Taylor, she has countertenor David Daniel’s Caesar and the entire audience in the palm of her hand as she sways, cajoles, manipulates and even dances Bollywood style all while singing at breakneck speed but with an uncanny beauty and sensitivity. British director David McVicar employs a take-no-prisoners approach that has the characters constantly in motion with the music, most of which, after all, is made up of eighteenth-century dance rhythms. But they don’t just dance, there is sexy swooning and as in Chinese Opera where acrobatics and martial arts are part of the fabric of the story, there is plenty of swordplay, fighting and even spaghetti Western-style shootings, complete with oozing blood, to say nothing of a decapitated head. Yet it all comes out rather “Fargo”esque and satirical somehow, despite the intensity. Not since the Marx Brothers has there been a night at the opera quite like this. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Civic Opera House, Wacker Drive at Madison, (312)332-2244. This production is now closed.