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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Giulio Cesare – Highlights from the opera in four acts. (1724)
Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym after Giacomo Francesco Bussani.
Giulio Cesare – Paul Esswood (counter-tenor)
Cleopatra – Roberta Alexander (soprano) and Lucia Popp (soprano) [14]
Cornelia – Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo)
Seste – Ann Murray (mezzo)
Arnold Schönberg-Chor/Erwin G. Ortner
Concentus musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Recorded in Vienna, April 1984 and May 1985.
WARNER APEX 2564 62018-2 [58:26]

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Premiered on 20 February, 1724 at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, Giulio Cesare stands as one of the most important operas from Handel’s prolific pen. As Silke Leopold’s liner notes explain, this opera cinched an extremely important victory for Handel. As one of three resident composers of the "Royal Academy of Music" (a joint-stock company founded by several noblemen under the auspices of the King), Handel found himself in severe compositional competition with Giovanni Bononcini. In fact, a comparison of both composer’s settings of the Serse story shows them to be not only competitors but liberal "borrowers" of each other’s musical ideas. It was with Giulio Cesare that Handel succeeded in formally defeating Bononcini — after its success, the Italian composer left the Royal Academy.

This recording truly presents some of this exquisite opera’s finest moments. Most of the major arias are represented in impeccable form. Harnoncourt leads the Concentus musicus Wien beautifully — they play sensitively and with great spirit. The ritornelli are delivered according to the Affekt of the aria. Most impressively, each ritornello is phrased and shaped according to the text that is to be subsequently sung to it. This creates an incredible cohesiveness as the strong and weak syllables are brought out in the orchestra before the singer even begins to sing the text. Tempi are appropriate throughout the recording with only one exception. Cesare’s first aria, Presti omai l’Egizia terra, seems a bit slow and laborious.

The roster of singers on this disc reads like an All-Star list, and the performances contained here certainly do justice to their reputations. Paul Esswood, in the title role, gives an above par performance. It is unfortunate, however, that his singing is the least impressive on the disc. As stated earlier, the tempo in his first aria seems a bit slow. Surely, this contributes to the occasionally unfocused tone. The biggest problem, however, is that here his voice lacks the virility and chutzpah the character requires.

Handel’s musical characterization of Cleopatra stands as an accomplishment in and of itself. Her exotic origins are reflected brilliantly in her music — her arias are set in many "exotically" sharp keys. In consideration of 18th century temperaments, these keys would have pushed the limits of tuning, giving aural representation of her "otherness." Harnoncourt takes this further in some places. His arrangement of continuo instruments in Cleopatra’s Act Two aria, Se pieta di me non senti, is unlike anything else on the recording. It is an immensely beautiful nine minutes that is not to be missed. Roberta Alexander executes this role with intense psychological insight and a generous helping of heavenly singing. Her Act Three aria, Da tempeste il legno infanto, is a coloratura tour de force. Her performance leaves little to be desired: melismatic passages are clear and artistic, the entire gamut of her considerable range rings clearly and uniformly, the text is delivered with utmost intelligibility, and, as though this weren’t enough, her cadenzas could rival an Olympic gymnastics team in acrobatic prowess.

Ann Murray as Seste and Marjana Lipovšek as Cornelia round this recording off well. Murray’s rendition of Svegliatevi nel core and the recitative that precedes it are delivered just as a vengeance aria should be. She sings passionately and brazenly. Her singing of the aria’s middle section carries superb contrast of color and sentiment that allows the da capo to shock the listener all over again with its agitation and fury. Murray’s voice is an incredible instrument. This short aria requires technical and expressive extremes, and she meets the challenge head-on.

This recording must stand out as one of the best representations of one of Handel’s most successful operatic ventures. My only hope is that a full recording of this cast will one day be available. This one hour compilation of highlights goes by all too quickly.

Jonathan Rohr

[There is a recommended complete opera on DVD see review]

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