Giulio Cesare in Egitto, first performed at King’s
Theatre, Haymarket, London, on 20 February 1724, is generally
regarded as Handel’s finest creation for the operatic stage.
It is also by far the most popular in modern times with more
than two hundred productions all over the world. It was an immediate
success from the beginning and was revived in 1725, 1730 and
1732 with some changes by the composer. It was also performed
in Paris, Hamburg and Brunswick but like all other Handel operas
it fell into oblivion during the 19th century and
when the renaissance for Handel’s opera came in the 1920s it
was often drastically changed, transposed and re-orchestrated.
It survived even such mutilations and today is generally performed as close to the original as possible, though the lack of castrato singers makes it necessary to employ contraltos and/or counter-tenors for the high male roles. On this recording the title role, written for the famous alto castrato Senesini, is taken by the male soprano Angelo Manzotti. ‘It is superfluous to note that some arias have been transposed in tonalities more congruous with the characteristics of the vocal capabilities of the performers but this also occurred in Haendel’s time’, says Matteo Armanino in the booklet notes, where he also admits that ‘some arias and spoken lines have been cut, without, however, damaging in any perceptible way for the audience (the) musical and scenographic facets …’. This is understandable, since Giulio Cesare in Egitto is a very long opera – even with cuts. The total playing time is 387:40, which means that with two normal - long - intervals the performance ended just before midnight. What is an desirable feature is the number of clumsy edits in the applause which is enthusiastic and frequent. Otherwise there is very little in the way of disturbing noises and the recording balance is fully acceptable. The playing of Il Concento Ecclesiastico on period instruments is fresh and stylish and the vocal ensemble makes strong contributions.
None of the soloists were known to me and there is some variable singing. However Angelo Manzotti in the title role and Alexandra Zabala as Cleopatra, the role written for the famous Francesca Cuzzoni, are splendid. Manzotti is dramatically apt and has fluent technique; his vocal range is impressive. He ends his second aria Empio, dirò tu sei (CD 1 tr. 5) on the word ‘pietà’ down in the bass register. He is also very good in the recitatives. His dramatic capacity is best demonstrated in the martial Va tacito e nascosto (CD 1 tr. 22) which is thrillingly sung, and his virtuosity is also well displayed in Se in fiorito (CD 2 tr. 11), where there is also a long cadenza for solo violin, exquisitely played. But the real tour de force is Al lampo dell’armi (CD 2 tr. 17), where his breakneck coloratura and stupendous high notes are amazing. Occasionally his tone sprawls a little and intonation can be suspect, but this can easily be overlooked in the face of such dramatically convincing and fresh singing. Ms Zabala sings stylishly, with nuance and has a good trill, secure top notes and smooth runs. V‘adoro, pupille (CD 2 tr. 9) is elegantly controlled and the long Se pieta di me non senti (CD 2 tr. 19) is a highlight. In the well known Piangerò (CD 3 tr. 5) she differentiates well the contrasting feelings. On the debit side her vibrato must be noted. This can become irritating in the long run and there is also a certain hardness to her tone.
Patrizia Bozzo is an excellent Sesto: fluent, dramatic and with beautiful voice. The good impression is slightly marred by a nervous flutter in her tone. Angelo Galeano sings Tolomeo with verve and security but I can imagine some listeners being irritated by his quick vibrato which is slightly reminiscent of Fernando De Lucia. Riccardo Ristori may not be the subtlest of singers but he grabs every opportunity to make a strong portrait of Achilla. The weakest link among the soloists is Paola Pittaluga who almost ruins the role of Cornelia through her wobbly singing. Still the recording offers quite a lot of good music-making.
Competition is keen, however. The pick of the bunch may be René Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi with Jennifer Larmore in the title role, Barbara Schlick as Cleopatra and Bernarda Fink as Cordelia. It was recorded in 1991. I haven’t heard the more recent Archiv recording under Marc Minkowski, with Marijana Mijanovic, Magdalena Kozena and Anne Sofie von Otter, but it received rave reviews when it appeared. There are also several DVDs, including one from Copenhagen under Lars Ulrik Mortensen with Andreas Scholl and Inger Dam-Jensen and a Glyndebourne production conducted by William Christie with Sarah Connolly and Danielle de Niese. Any of these versions should be more recommendable than the one under consideration, which however is worth hearing for the thrilling Angelo Manzotti in the title role and for Alexandra Zabala’s partly ravishing Cleopatra.