Giulio Cesare in Egitto

The most famous among Handel’s opera, Giulio Cesare in Egitto was the fifth opera he premièred at the King’s Theatre (on 20 February 1724) and his greatest sucess. It was revived in 1725, 1730 and 1732 and was also performed in Hamburg, Paris and Brunswik. It was also the first opera by Handel to reach the audiences in the XXth century, having a great variety of recordings in “traditional” style, such as Rudel’s, Leitner’s and Richter’s.

Handel’s inspiration was at its best and the opera does not have one weak number. Also, it is probably the richest orchestrated among Handel’s operas, with French horns, recorders, flutes, bassoons and lots of doubling effects, including an off-stage band. It is also notable that the score has a variety of numbers other than arias, such as duets, small ensembles, choirs, accompanied recitatives. Also, Handel’s dramatic skills devised a plan where all characters develop during the opera due to the variety of affetti displayed throughout the opera.

Nicola Francesco Haym’s libretto also has to do with the success of the opera – the characters are less one-dimensional than one could expect, especially Cleopatra, whose multi-layered personality is brilliantly portrayed in her eight arias. As a matter of fact, one could use the word “Mozartian” to describe the way each character is differentiated from the other.

The première had Francesca Cuzzoni as Cleopatra, Margherita Durastanti as Sesto, Senesino as Cesare, Gaetano Berenstadt as Tolomeo, Anastasia Robinson as Cornelia and Giuseppe Boschi as Achilla.

Karina Gauvin (Cleopatra), Romina Basso (Cornelia), Emöke Baráth (Sesto), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Giulio Cesare), Filippo Mineccia (Tolomeo), Johannes Weisser (Achilla), Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis

Alan Curtis has a vast discography of Handel operas for Virgin Records but had to wait before he could record (for Naïve Records) the Caro Sassone’s most famous work for the theatre during a series of concerts in 2011. I was able to see one of them, in Braunschweig, with virtually the same cast (there was no space in the luggage for a Curio – and a harp) and my impression is that the German concert found the singers more in the mood than back at home in Lonigo (where Curtis usually records). Those who know the Canadian conductor’s recordings may guess what to expect here: polished orchestral sound, sensible tempi and an elegant rather than theatrical approach. These expectations will not fully be disappointed, but it seems that a sense of story-telling has not been neglected here. You can see in the very sound of the orchestra that Achilla is a buffoon, you can hear Cleopatra’s teasing in the mocking sounds of the violins in Non disperar and you can certainly “hear” Caesar’s thrusting his sword at his enemies in Al lampo dell’armi, but these descriptive effects curiously do not build any dramatic atmosphere. Maybe the playing is too smooth (at least the French horn in Va tacito e nascosto is fortunately smooth as you would wish), maybe rhythmic vitality is not really there or maybe the conductor just does not find that important – the fact is that listening to isolated numbers will be a far more satisfying experience than listening to the whole opera. Karina Gauvin’s velvety soprano shows that she is not kidding when she explains Ptolemy that she rules the place. With the help of very clear diction and the richness of her voice, she causes a grand impression when grandeur is needed, but misses the point entirely when seduction or flirtatiousness is required (V’adoro, pupille rather cold). Although she dispatches the coloratura in Da tempeste with great aplomb, nimbleness is not really the word that comes to my mind. Having a second soprano as Sesto could have made things a bit confuse, especially a bright-toned one such as Emöke Baráth, but the boyish sound she produces prevents any similarity here. The Hungarian soprano is a trouper and fearlessly tackles the low tessitura  and manages her heroic arias without sounding too heroic – yet a little bit more comfort in the lower range and more tonal variety would be welcome. With a formidable r moscia and her agile, firm and contralto-ish mezzo, one cannot help wondering how Romina Basso would sound as Caesar himself. As Cornelia, she does suggest the famous Roman matron’s dignity, but the vulnerability is not really there. I can see that Marie-Nicole Lemieux is an extremely committed performer and also an interesting personality, but I just cannot believe in her Caesar. First, her grainy, slightly veiled contralto is not very “masculine” in sound. Second, her attempts at sounding masculine – rolled r’s and abrupt thrusts in chest range included – have more than a splash of grotesque. Third, her delivery of the text is so Schwarzkopfianly affected that one cannot see a Roman hero there. Looking for the silver lining, there is an interpretation to write about and she tackles the coloratura commendably (far better than live). Filippo Mineccia’s difficult passaggio does not help him to sound menacing enough as Ptolemy – and even if he knows what his role is about, his voice is not somewhat up to its demand. Johannes Weisser is an interesting Achilla, richer in the lower reaches than what I had expected and more nuanced in interpretation than what one usually finds in this part. Last but not least, Milena Storti’s dark contralto makes a fine impression as Nireno. The recording opens up the cuts made in live performances.

Natalie Dessay (Cleopatra), Varduhi Abrahamyan (Cornelia), Isabel Leonard (Sesto), Lawrence Zazzo (Giulio Cesare), Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo), Nathan Berg (Achilla), Choeur de l’Opéra de Paris, Le Concert d’Astrée, Emmanuelle Haïm

Filmed in the Palais Garnier, this video from the Opéra de Paris is a puzzling exercise of style. On one hand all forces involved are of high artistic caliber and offer something in keeping with one of the world’s leading opera houses; on the other hand, there seems to be a prevailing lack of belief in Handel’s and the libretto’s dramatic effectiveness and the corresponding need to boost its expressive powers to the full. In the case of  Laurent Pelly’s production, this means a complete disregard of characterisation: the action is set in a museum and Caesar, Cleopatra et al suddenly come back to life, behaving like cardboard figures (Caesar moves like a robot, Cleopatra bounces like a cheerleader, Cornelia strikes one dignified pose after the other, Tolomeo climbs pieces of scenery and jumps back whenever he can) while the museum staff walks to and fro in order to make the already very busy staging sugar-rush frantic. Don’t look for any depth beyond the cuteness. Conductor Emmanuelle Haïm’s compensatory attitude is radically opposite – she milks the slow numbers to get every ounce of emotion (sometimes at the expense of rhythmic flow – section A of Piangerò la sorte mia for instance) and zips formidably in fast numbers, adding extra abrasiveness to the orchestral sound of the excellent Concert d’Astrée for the double-turbo option. Va tacito e nascosto, for example, sounds here overtly aggressive in a way that does not go with the protocolar situation depicted in the libretto. Besides, it sounds basically very ugly this way. The lack of theatrical purpose and the excess of musical enthusiasm has the effect of extreme vehemence in the cast. Handelian lines are tackled with almost verismo-like intensity, including extra serving of vibrato, high notes and acting with the voice. This must add a certain modern feeling to XVIIIth century opera, but after a while one wishes that these performers had let the music speak for itself. The tessitura of the role of Cleopatra is low for Natalie Dessay’s voice – her middle register hardly sounds sensuous enough and it open up a bit glaringly in a not completely focused high register. Of course, she finds no problem in the coloratura and has a fancy for overdecoration almost worthy of Beverly Sills (Da tempeste is fireworked from note one – when she reaches the repeat, only a crotchet or a minim could have truly surprised the audience). She sings all her arias (the edition here is quite comprehensive for a live performance – basically only Achilla’s Se a me non sei crudele, Cornelia’s Cessa omai di sospirare, Sesto’s L’aura che spira and Caesar’s Quel torrente and their corresponding recitatives are cut), but she nimbly skates on the cute surface of everything until she sings a not truly stylish but grandiose and tragic Se pietà and an interesting and multilayered Piangerò. Varduhi Abrahamyan’s dark mezzo has an appealing quality and she knows how to portray offended dignity, but the tonal palette is somewhat narrow. Isabel Leonard’s mezzo is a bit monochromatic, a bit recessed in the low notes and a somewhat too fluffy in her high notes. Her Sesto is competently handled, but somehow baroque phrasing is not truly her forte. Although Lawrence Zazzo has a hard time with Caesar’s bravura arias (especially in these ultrasonic tempi), his creamy countertenor has some beautiful moments in elegiac numbers, especially in Aure, deh, per pietà. Christophe Dumaux is far flashier as Tolomeo, a bit less solid if a little showier in his ornamentation than in the video from Glyndebourne. I am afraid that I have found Nathan Berg’s nasal and unfocused singing as Achilla rather testing.

Emanuela Galli (Cleopatra), Irini Karaianni (Cornelia), Kristina Hammarström (Giulio Cesare), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Sesto), Romina Basso (Tolomeo), Tassis Christoyannis (Achilla), Petros Magoulas (Curio), Orchestra of Patras, George Petrou

Greek conductor George Petrou takes the discography by storm and arguably offers the most dazzling account of this score on CD. His tempi are fast, his orchestra plays with impressive virtuoso quality, the continuo is glamorously taken by harpsichords, cello and theorbo (which also adds an abrasive sound to the orchestra) and the accents are truly theatrical. In this atmosphere of excitement and panache, meditative numbers may lack concentration, what seems to boost in the conductor  (and sometimes his soloists) the impulse to add unwelcome punch even then. Sample the sudden dry staccato accompaniment in some passages of Se pietà to see the point. It is only a pity that Petrou encourages all singers to grotesque exercises of overornamentation, including bizarre downward chromatic glissandi that sound entirely misplaced in this music. Emanuela Galli is outstandingly sexy in the role of Cleopatra – her rich, flexible high soprano is appealing in tone and she adds extra provocativeness when this is not enough. Being Italian, she uses the text adeptly and even disguises her voice to portray an aptly bimbo-ish Lydia. If she finally is not an ideal Cleopatra, one must blame her distracting interpretative mannerisms. But she comes close to the mark! Irina Karaianni is a true contralto with plenty of verve, but her voice has its opaque and unstable moments, what is sadly evident in a very slow account of her first aria. Kristina Hammarström is a slim-toned Cesar with breathtakingly accurate fast divisions, a firm bottom register and attitude to spare and Mary-Ellen Nessi is an outstanding, energetic Sesto, one of the best. For a change, we have a contralto in the role of Tolomeo – and Romina Basso seizes the occasion to offer a truly intense performance, with crystal-clear enunciation of her native language, rich low notes and absolutely no problem with the passaggio. Both Tassis Christoyannis and Petros Magoulas offer stylish, capable performances as Achilla and Curio.

Danielle de Niese (Cleopatra), Patricia Bardon (Cornelia), Sarah Connolly (Giulio Cesare), Angelika Kirchschlager (Sesto), Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo), Cristopher Maltman (Achilla), Alexander Ashworth (Curio), The Glyndenbourne Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie

If you have to see Giulio Cesare in video you won’t be able to do better than getting hold of William Christie’s DVD from Glyndenbourne. Director David McVicar shifts the action from the Roman to the British Empire and Egypt becomes India – in a rather Bollywood perspective. Singers are required to dance Broadway-like while singing their difficult arias – this could have been dangerous, but this cast can dance and sing very well. I do not want to sound like a spoil-sport, but all this cute little steps had a distracting effect on me and in the end I missed a Cleopatra that did not act as if she was playing Catherine Zeta-Jones’s role in Chicago. As a matter of fact, Danielle de Niese could certainly try her chance on Broadway – she is sexy, funny and sings well. However, although I feel compelled to say “the approach required from her”, it seems that her whole natural approach is a bit superficial. Her Cleopatra sounds, acts, thinks and breathes soubrettishly in a way that does not go with Handel’s idea of having a prima donna assoluta to sing an aria such as Se pietà. De Niese does have clear coloratura and negotiates well her low register, but lacks variety (and mezza voce). In the end, it is most confusing to have a Cesare who sounds lovelier than his Cleopatra. Sarah Connolly – and this sounds really ungracious – does cut a believable figure on stage as a man, but the grain of her mezzo soprano is so soft and velvety and her phrasing so delicate and sensitive that I had to adjust mentally the fact that she was taking the the primo uomo role. Because of that, she feels far more at ease in an aria such as Se in fiorito ameno prato than in Al lampo dell’armi. Angelika Kirchschlager has a similar problem – she does look convincingly boyish (although she hams a lot), but the sound is too feminine and her natural range is too high for her part. On the other hand, Patricia Bardon’s echt contralto works beautifully for Cornelia, even if having the darkest voice in the cast may be a bit puzzling. Christophe Dumaux sings with energy as Tolomeo, and knows how to work his countertenor through registers break for the right effects. Finally, baritone Cristopher Maltman is a bit miscast in a bass role. When it comes to William Christie, I am afraid that finding comfortable tempi throughout the score puts him in second place to the more varied and bold readings offered by both Jacobs and Minkowski. This might sound mean – but has Va tacito e nascosto sounded so dull as in this performance? This is a long opera with some difficult patches of gloomy music (yes, I am speaking of Sesto and Cornelia) and it is very important to keep the right level of energy from beginning to the end. But do not mistake my words – this is a stylish performance, sensitively conducted and exquisitely played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Inger Dam-Jensen (Cleopatra),Randi Stene (Cornelia), Tuva Semmingsen (Sesto), Andreas Scholl (Giulio Cesare), Christopher Robson (Tolomeo), Palle Knudsen (Achilla), Concerto Copenhagen, Lars Ulrik Mortensen

Director Francesco Negrin and his designer Anthony Baker’s second entry in the videography (see below for RICHARD HICKOX) repeat one or two features from their staging for the Sydney Opera House, but the approach now has some key differences – although the style is still anachronistic, the newer production looks more modern and has a more distinct sense of humor. With the exception of the Giulio Cesare, all singers are very fluent in the acting department. Conductor Lars Ulrik Mortensen with his warm-sounding period instrument orchestra is not trying to make any particular point just to make a difference – his tempi sound invariably right, in a way that the orchestra and these singers never sound desperate trying to accomplish impossibly fast divisions or to cope with impossibly slow pace (an important aspect for Cornelia’s music). As a result, the performance flows in a natural pace, the music seems invariably very beautiful without any loss of drama and excitement. As expected, some arias are cut and other ones presented without section B and repeat. Ornamentation is fortunately never overdone either. Inger Dam-Jensen is a golden-toned Cleopatra who finds no problems in the fioriture but relies too much in the lovely creaminess of her soprano for expression. Therefore, her Cleopatra lacks a bit variety and is always more persuasive when she has to seem commanding rather than seductive. Randi Stene sounds at ease with the lower tessitura of Cornelia’s music, but her tonal palette is too restricted for Cornelia, and the final impression is quite monotone. On the other hand, Tuva Semmingsen is an excellent Sesto, her mezzo is young-sounding and flexible and she is convincing both handling softer and more agitated affetti. Andreas Scholl’s countertenor hardly sounds heroic for Giulio Cesare and the voice has hardened a bit, but he tackles coloratura excitingly. Cristopher Robson is ill-at-ease with the lower writing for Tolomeo and sounds too often out of sorts, but his acting makes what his singing often fails to do. Palle Knudsen’s supple baritone is rather short in its lower end, and Michael Maniaci takes profit of his only aria to show that his high notes are quite generous.

Elena de la Merced (Cleopatra), Ewa Podles (Cornelia), Maité Beaumont (Sesto), Flavio Olivier (Giulio Cesare), Jordi Domènech (Tolomeo), Oliver Zwarg (Achilla), David Menéndez (Curio), Orquestra Sinfònica i Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Michael Hofstetter

Herbert Wernicke’s production is helplessly trying to be different, bothering with the libretto in a dangerous way and making characters silly – not to mention that his sense of humor is too German to elicit the slightest smile. On the other hand, Michael Hofstetter offers a stylish performance and has a most alert band in the Liceu’s orchestra. I just wonder why he had to agree with the deletion of some famous numbers, reducing the role of Cleopatra almost to comprimario, while including arias from Orlando, Tolomeo and Rinaldo, which add nothing to the understanding of the plot – especially when the cast does not offer anything close enough to unforgettable so as to compensate us for the loss of something like Da tempeste. Considering Mr. Wernicke’s talents, if I were the theatre’s intendent, I would rather trust Mr. Handel’s ideas. Robbed of the complete set of arias that would enable her to develop her character as we are used to hear, the bright-toned Elena de la Merced sounds a bit one-dimensional. She is a capable singer and her soprano is pleasing and natural, but her high register may sound metallic and is not very prone to float mezza voce (as one would ideally expect in Se pietà). Although Ewa Podles is an intense and gifted singer, her whole method sounds too exotic for Handel these days. The tone has a veiled, slightly unfocused quality which tampers with legato and clear diction in this repertoire. Flavio Olivier’s countertenor is too timid in the lower reaches and wholly unheroic for the role of Julius Cesar. He has fluent divisions and a healthy high register and looks Roman somehow, but his sound is simply wrong for this role. As for Jordi Domènech, his voice is so smoky that we can hardly hear what he is singing when he dives into his low notes. Both basses are too dry-toned for comfort. Thus, only Maité Beaumont offers the above-standard singing one expects to find in a venture of this kind. Her clean, ductile mezzo fills Handelian lines beautifully and she sounds energetic enough in the role of Sesto.

Magdalena Kozena (Cleopatra), Charlotte Hellekant (Cornelia), Marjana Mijanovic (Giulio Cesare), Anne Sofie von Otter (Sesto), Bejun Mehta (Tolomeo), Alan Ewing (Achilla), Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski

Marc Minkowski’s inimitable sense of theatre and the way he makes his orchestra sing with his singers makes this an essential recording. More than that: his exciting tempi and rich orchestral sound make a long opera more seductive to those not yet converted to this repertoire. Some traditional battle-horses, such as Va tacito, acquire a particular buoyancy, a rhythmic alertness and downright orchestral excitement that even a veteran Handelian could listen to freshly. Comparison between Jacobs and Minkowski reveals that the French conductor is consistently faster, but even when he is not, as in Non è si vago, his crispier articulation may give this impression. Although she is not as sexy in tone as I would have liked, Magdalena Kozena is a Cleopatra of great distinction. I had often read that her tone makes one think of Lucia Popp and I never agreed with that, but here Kozena often evokes the great Slovak soprano. She is technically impressive, shows care with the text and, as Popp, had this je-ne-sais-quoi, a kind of natural radiating warmth, that always places her in the core of the events. Anne Sofie von Otter’s voice is no longer as compact as it used to be and her low register sometimes fail to project as it should, but she is an imaginative and varied performer and sings the part of Sesto with true animation. Charlotte Hellekant’s fruity mezzo soprano is used expressively as Cornelia. Marjana Mijanovic’s contralto is extremely natural in its lowest reaches. Her singing as Cesar is stylish and often sensitive, if not entirely ingratiating. Bejun Mehta’s low register is probably the richest-toned among countertenors and his voice seems to carry on well in the hall – it is a compelling performance. Alan Ewing is an impressive Achilla, singing with dark tonal quality and energy.

Lynne Dawson (Cleopatra), Guillemette Laurens (Cornelia), James Bowman (Giulio Cesare), Eirian James (Sesto), Dominique Visse (Tolomeo), Nicolas Rivenq (Achilla), La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy, Jean-Claude Malgoire

It may sound tautological to say that Malgoire’s recording offers a French perspective of Giulio Cesare, but the truth is that this warmly recorded elegant and charming performance, in which flowing dance-like rhythms abound, has more than often a Rameau-like atmosphere. Here you will find the most animated Priva son d’ogni conforto ever recorded or probably the most eupeptic Non è si vago and perhaps the most solemn V’adoro, pupille ever. One may point out that this graceful approach may get dangerously close to sameness, but it would be unfair to fault a recording in which the beauty of Handel’s writing comes through in such a striking manner. Malgoire also counts with brilliant casting, with one notable exception, which unfortunately involves the title role. James Bowman’s English-style angelic countertenor, pleasing as it sounds, hardly suggest anything regal, heroic or passionate. As a result, Cesare’s arias sound all of them quite monotonous and faceless. As for Lynne Dawson, she finds true nonchalance even in the most difficult arias, but still lacks the sex appeal for the part of Cleopatra. Maybe a more luscious low register would do the trick. Guillemette Laurens is the brighter-toned Cornelia in the discography, singing with complete stylishness and musicianship, not to mention that her mezzo-soprano is fruity and pleasant. For a change, Eirian James’s Sesto (beautifully sung too) sounds rather darker than her mother’s, what makes the character more assertive if less boyish than usual. Dominique Visse’s eery sounding countertenor is effective for the role of Ptolomy, while Nicolas Rivenq’s Achilla could do with less strain.

Yvonne Kenny (Cleopatra), Rosemary Gunn (Cornelia), Elizabeth Campbell (Sesto), Graham Pushee (Giulio Cesare), Andrew Dalton (Tolomeo), Stephen Bennett (Achilla), Richard Alexander (Curio), Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Richard Hickox

Differently from most recent stagings of Handel operas, Francisco Negrin’s production for the Australian Opera just tries to tell the story, although it indulges in the kind of kitsch that is hard to overlook. Richard Hickox does not try to convince the house orchestra to emulate a period instrument band and offers a rather large-scaled approach to the score which retains, nonetheless, the necessary level of clarity, despite some tempi that could be a bit more buoyant. Even if Yvonne Kenny no longer displays the command of high notes and fast divisions she used to have, hers is still a most charming voice. I am afraid that she looks a bit veteran for the role of the Egyptian seductress, though. Graham Pushee is the best countertenor Cesar in the discography. There is nothing affected or feminine in his singing and his registers are unusually well-connected. He tackles his arie di bravura with gusto and sounds sensitive and varied in his arie d’affetto. A beautiful performance. Cornelia, Sesto and Achilla are more functional than exciting.

Barbara Schlick (Cleopatra), Bernarda Fink (Cornelia), Jennifer Larmore (Giulio Cesare), Marianne Rørholm (Sesto), Derek Lee Ragin (Tolomeo), Furio Zanasi (Achilla), Concerto Köln, René Jacobs

René Jacobs’s was the first recording presenting a complete edition with period instruments and without resorting to transposition for the parts of Cesar, Sextus and Ptolemy. Jacobs’s conducting sees to the minimal details in the score, the Concerto Köln plays with tremendous gusto and the recording is natural and pleasing. Moreover, it has a very strong cast. As a matter of fact, the singer who deserves a “but” is the one taking the role of Cleopatra. This is Barbara Schlick’s best recorded performance. She is wonderfully alive, the voice has an apt brightness and she has strong technique, but Cleopatra should sound more seductive than this. This is a problem related to almost every Cleopatra in the discography. A reviewer used the word “narcisism” – and maybe that explains well what the role requires. Marianne Rørholm is a wonderful Sesto, displaying a firm strong voice and her forthrightness becomes this trouser role. Bernarda Fink brings her usual intensity, stylishness and loveliness of tone to the role of Cornelia. More than that: her voice sounds vulnerable and feminine, which is welcome in an opera cast with so many high voices in male roles. Even in a starry cast like this, Jennifer Larmore is an amazing presence. First of all, there is a forceful voice here used with impressive virtuoso-quality entirely in the service of drama. In the more outspoken numbers, she constantly amazes with her enormous range, power and accuracy. Also, she – not for a second – forgets she is performing a male role and this is in the core of her performance – even her coloratura is made to sound forceful, sometimes (aptly) to the expense of vocal beauty. When there is Derek Lee Ragin, there is controversy. Yes, the vocal method is bizarre, but he sings with energy and his top notes are more powerful than what one usually hears from a countertenor. And the weirdness is apt for the role of Ptolemy. Finally, Furio Zanasi is a most accomplished Acchila, singing with Italian naturalness and producing clean fioriture throughout.

Roberta Alexander (Cleopatra), Marjana Lipovsek (Cornelia), Ann Murray (Sesto), Paul Esswood (Giulio Cesare), Arnold Schönberg-Chor, Concentus Musicus Wien, Nikolaus Harnoncourt

The introduction of Giulio Cesare to the world of period instruments has been made by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose live performances have been recorded exclusively in the format of highlights, what is a pity. It is true that the Austrian conductor’s view of this opera is a bit austere, but this CD treasures delectable performances from Ann Murray, Marjana Lipovsek and, above all, Roberta Alexander, whose Cleopatra is the lushest and creamiest-toned in the discography. It is an endearing curiosity that in the finale ultimo, the prima donna is Lucia Popp, who shared the role with Alexander during these performances. The serious drawback in this performance is, unfortunately, the miscasting of Paul Esswood in the title role. His countertenor is too light and his coloratura too careful for this role.