Earthly delights

Opera - David Benedict is seduced by the thrilling exoticism of a scantily clad queen of the Nile

From its premiere in 1724, Handel's Giulio Cesare was a runaway hit. Watching Glyndebourne Festival Opera's astonishing new production, it becomes blisteringly clear why it is reg-arded as the composer's operatic masterpiece. Giulio Cesare is not so much a box of delights as an embarrassment of riches.

Valuables, however, need looking after. Bad productions have made this opera look long-winded and lacklustre. At Glyndebourne, David McVicar makes almost four hours of musical theatre glow.

McVicar's production emphasises the lighter, more self-conscious side of Handel's opera. Lissom Danielle de Niese's Cleopatra dances several of her arias as well as she sings them. This is Cleopatra as uberminx. Before anyone gets hot and bothered about the queen of the Nile disporting herself in such skimpy wardrobe items as Brigitte Reiffenstuel's see-through, rhinestone-studded little black cocktail number, bear in mind that, for Caesar, Cleopatra represents sexual exoticism par excellence.

The emphasis on eroticism and irony is indicative of McVicar's adherence to emotional reality rather than dully dutiful literal reality. In fact, the fast-and-loose humour of Andrew George's knowing, coquettish choreography reinforces an underlying sense of seriousness. The production is unified by a deep respect for the score, as is evident from William Christie's startling conducting of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Christie encourages a wealth of individual colours from baroque recorders and other, more arcane original instruments such as the theorbo: an enormous, double-headed lute with a thrillingly resonant, woody tone (here played to vivid effect by Elizabeth Kenny). You begin to suspect that the blandness of modern instruments is one of the reasons why Handel languished in obscurity for so long. Christie's great strength is his dedication to drama. When Caesar rages at being presented with Pompey's severed head, the conductor whips up true fury from scurrying strings. In "Va tacito", Caesar's aria about waiting for the moment, the strings emphasise the steady beat of time before slowing to a climactic, sustained blast from the solo horn expressing Caesar's resolute intent.

McVicar complements Christie's dramatic sensitivity with the musicality of his production. On Robert Jones's beautifully ordered Edwardian-era, Raj-style set, first-rate singers completely inhabit both text and score. Not everyone is ideally cast - Christopher Maltman's voice is not quite low enough for the general Achilla - but McVicar nevertheless manages to inspire exhilarating conviction in his singers.

Despite his eight solo arias, Caesar (a part originally written for a castrato) is usually the hardest role to flesh out. Yet Sarah Connolly effortlessly oozes authority. Her second-act duet with an on-stage violin, "Se in fiorito", rises above merely dazzling singing to an expression of Caesar's sly sense of humour. Hell, she even whistles a couple of bars.

Listening to her hushed, floated top notes, you realise Handel loved singers and wrote unusually well for them. Yet the strength of this production lies in its spurning of empty, audience-pleasing vocal pyrotechnics.

Take the frankly ravishing duet where the despairing Cornelia and Sesto, in fear for their lives, mourn the death of Pompey. The lighting designer Paule Constable bathes them in a tight pool of light, which contrasts with the waves of the Nile glinting in the moonlight. With such dramatic staging, a lesser production would have gone for heart-on-sleeve emoting in the couple's spine-melting falling phrases. But Patricia Bardon and Angelika Kirchschlager pull back on the sound, singing so quietly that they seem to draw us inside the music. The spellbinding effect recalls the observation of Yip Harburg, co-writer of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow": "Words make you think thoughts, music makes you feel a feeling, but a song makes you feel a thought."

McVicar's production gives a much-needed lift to Glyndebourne's season after Peter Hall's lamentably half-baked opener La Cenerentola. Londoners can catch the musical glories of Giulio Cesare when it comes to the Proms on 23 August - although, robbed of its theatricality, that's only half the story.

Giulio Cesare is at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes, East Sussex (01273 813 813) until 20 August