On the three hundredth anniversary of the premier of Georg Frideric Handel’s Giulio Cesare, based on Rome’s civil war (47-48BC), Blackwater Valley Opera Festival revives and revitalizes one of the composer’s most popular works.

In truth, Giulio Cesare has never gone out of style; its grand themes of war, colonialism and political backbiting remain much in vogue. Throw in a beheading, a failed suicide or two, vengeful bloodletting, the specter of rape, a love story bedeviled by subterfuge, bitter rivalry and betrayal, and you have more than enough ingredients for a wickedly entertaining story.

The set (Aedín Cosgrove), a catwalk flanked by large sculptures of a hippo and a cat—laden with symbolism in Egyptian mythology—is spare by comparison to the epic tale, and a little underwhelming. Such designer minimalism turns the spotlight firmly on the music and the cast, exhorting something special to elevate the spectacle. And in this respect BWVOF’s Giulio Cesare deliver in spades.

Ingeborg Bröcheler (contralto) as Giulio Cesare commands the auditorium with her swaggering presence. Nils Wanderer (countertenor) is brilliant as Tolomeo, the Egyptian king of high camp and Machiavellian darkness. Anna Devin (soprano) as the seductive Cleopatra, Carolyn Holt (mezzo-soprano) as the grief-stricken Cornelia and Sharon Carty (mezzo-soprano) as the vengeful Sesto, likewise deliver full blooded and nuanced performances.

Baritone Dean Murphy, a suitably nasty Achilla, and bass Fionn Ó hAlmhain as Curio inject booming bottom-end weight, while poor old Iestyn Morris (countertenor) as Nireno is but a spectator.

This production convincingly coneys the gravity of Nicola Francesco Haym’s libretto, even if Handel’s handsome and virtuoso baroque score lacks the stormy contours one might expect from such a story. It is tempting to imagine what Tchaikovsky or Verdi might have conjured with such bold themes.

Still, the 25-strong Irish Baroque Orchestra, steered by conductor Nicholas McGegan, interprets the rhythmically lively score with equal parts brio and aching finesse. In one of several moments where the fourth wall dissolves, violinist Julia Kuhn steps out to serenade Bröcheler quite beautifully on the aria “Se in fiorito ameno prato,” which, coming quickly on the heels of Holt’s and Carty’s heart-melting duet “Son nata a lagrimar” and Devin’s moving “V’adoro, pupille” makes for a stunning string of showstoppers before the intermission.

Director Tom Creed’s judicious pruning lightens the opera by half a dozen scenes or so, recitatives mostly, though more than one aria also gets the chop. No matter, for like most of Handel’s operas, Giulio Cesare gifts an endless stream of da capo arias, and real beauties at that. The twenty-plus arias represent a smorgasbord of contrasting emotions and dazzling technical virtuosity from all the leads, but if forced to pick just one—a real sword-at-the-head choice—it would be Devin’s “Se pietà di me non senti,” delivered with heart-wrenching emotion.

Creed leaves his mark in another important way, wresting humour from the libretto where more sober direction might stifle the entertainment. Tolomeo’s menacingly possessive confrontation with Cleopatra in Act Three (“Domerò la tua fierezza”) is lent cruel comedic value by the Egyptian king’s mimicry of a bird having its wings clipped.

There are more innocent laughs to plunder; A pair of sunglasses is all Cleopatra needs to disguise herself as Lydia (shades of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly) and symbolizes how quickly Creed’s direction can shift from serious to comic. When the chorus members each don the same accessory, clicking their fingers as they move in syncopated rhythm, it seems like a set piece from Grease.

From first note to last the audience is fully invested, overcoming its initial squeamishness in Act One (gasps abound as the severed head of Pompeo is tossed unceremoniously to the ground) to applaud as Sesto bashes in Tolomeo’s skull in Act Three.

Cesare and Cleopatra’s romance peaks with a stunning duet from Bröcheler and Devin that sets the seal, a rousing finale from Handel’s underworked chorus apart, on a memorable evening. Bravura performances all round, further cementing Blackwater Valley Opera Festival’s reputation as a jewel in Waterford 's cultural calendar.