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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17 (1724) [208.00]
Text by Nicola Haym after Bussani
Giulio Cesare ... Graham Pushee, counter-tenor
Curio ... Richard Alexander, bass
Cornelia ... Rosemary Gunn, soprano
Sesto ... Elizabeth Campbell, mezzo
Cleopatra ... Yvonne Kenny, soprano
Tolomeo ... Andrew Dalton, counter-tenor
Achilla ... Stephen Bennet, tenor
Nireno ... Rodney Gilchrist, counter-tenor
Dancers of Opera Australia
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra/Richard Hickox.
Recorded at the Opera House, Sydney, Australia, June 1994
Notes in English, Deutsch, and Français. Colour photos of Graham Pushee in costume, and of Sydney Opera House. Detailed track listing. No text or translations.
PAL 4:3 PCM stereo 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1, dts 5.1. Disk 1, DVD-9; Disk 2 DVD-5.
Subtitles in English, Deutsch, Français, Italiano. Region code 0 [all regions]
Region 1 NTSC version available as Kultur Video D2911.
EUROARTS 2053599 [146.00 + 62.00]

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Comparison Recordings:
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (excerpts) DGG LP SLPM 138 637

This is a stunning recording of a superb performance and staging. Singing and acting both are excellent throughout, but one must single out Pushee and Kenny as Caesar and Cleopatra, and Elizabeth Campbell in the secondary role of Sesto, for special praise. Pushee has exactly the right regal bearing for Caesar and his brilliant, secure, agile, counter-tenor voice serves, as Handel intended, to set him apart from mere mortals, to make him godlike*. Yet this Caesar still has a trace of boyish prankishness in him so his capitulation to Cleopatra is fully believable. This Cleopatra has all the classic physical beauty, the charm and sensuality, and the regal hauteur required to conquer the ruler of the world. Elizabeth Campbell makes her secondary role of Sesto a focus of dramatic energy and steals the stage any time she is singing on it. She fully convinces us that she is a young man and not a woman in menís clothes.

This is more than just beautiful music. The dramatic situation is vividly portrayed in this production as Caesar, alone, enters into Alexandria from the audience. The Egyptian palace is a black, mysterious hieroglyph-inscribed labyrinth where rooms appear and disappear, passages open up and close up again, walls are moved by armed Egyptian soldiers in black tunics, whose arms and faces appear to float in the air. In all the times Iíve seen this story told on stage and on film, Iíve never before felt this much menace.

The costumes of the main characters are not too far from what Handel might have expected to see on the stage of his time ó Caesar wears a white linen summer uniform and a crown of laurels, the others are more 18th century looking ó but props lean toward authentic Egyptian style. The Egyptians greet Caesar with real palm fronds as the words of the text require. There are some amusing anachronisms which lighten the mood. To show what bad-asses the Egyptian soldiers are, one of them lounges against a pillar carelessly smoking a cigarette. Tolomeo menaces Cleopatra with a pistol, a Luger it appears, which is later struck from his hand by Sesto just as Tolomeo is overcome and stabbed. In Cleopatraís bath seduction scene with Caesar, there is just a little vamp-and-camp but, although some snickers from the audience might have been appropriate, I donít know why the audience found this whole scene so rollickingly hilarious unless there was some off-camera hi-jinx we didnít see. When a beautiful lady is naked on stage it seems awfully rude for the audience to laugh.

Video direction is excellent, which is to say you donít notice it, you are generally looking where you want to look, seeing what you want to see. Although this is full screen 4:3 PAL video, it canít be a coincidence that the proscenium opening at Sydney Opera House is 16 by 9 proportion. Conductor Hickox and the orchestra perform the score beautifully, authentically but not brutally so, always there to give support, yet never covering the singers. The orchestra observe strict tempi but the singers occasionally employ true rubato, allowing their lyric phrases at the peak of passion to soar free of bar-lines. And all singers and instrumental soloists employ exemplary, discrete ornamentation and embellishment of repeats.

The throne of Egypt is represented by an impressive Egyptian artefact, a replica of Tut-Ankh-Amenís throne chair. Us Egyptologists get a laugh out of this because at the time Caesar was in Egypt Tut-Ankh-Amenís throne chair was still sealed in his tomb buried under 20 feet of rubble in the Valley of the Kings and would not see the light of day until 1923. AD, that is.

If anything, Pushee and Kinney sing better and better as the opera progresses. Pusheeís duet with the on-stage solo violin (Tony Gault) at the beginning of Act II (Se in fiorito...) contains some amusing interactions and stopped the show. On the other hand, Sesto (Elizabeth Campbell), while never failing in dramatic intensity, loses some pitch security and tends to wail a bit as the opera progresses.

Although Handelís model was the Italian opera of the time, Cleopatraís lament, like Purcellís lament for Dido of, is a chaconne in format, although Handel has Cleopatra interrupt with angry vows to haunt her murderer forever. The final chorus is startlingly like the final chorus in Bachís "Coffee Cantata" which is in all but name a chamber opera, written at about the same time. Handel and Bach were not likely copying each other, but both probably were observing a convention from German operas with which both would have been familiar.

Some day we may get an absolutely perfect Giulio Cesare. It will look at lot like this one and will sound only a tiny bit better. And Iíll be long dead, so I advise you not to wait but to enjoy this one now.

* Fischer-Dieskau accomplishes divinity in his native voice range via transposition and is an experience not to be missed by any who love this music.

Paul Shoemaker

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