RECORDING OF THE MONTH
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724)
Complete recording of the 1724 version.
Kristina Hammarström (mezzo) – Giulio Cesare; Emanuela Galli (soprano) – Cleopatra; Mary-Ellen Nesi (mezzo) – Sesto; Irini Karaianni (mezzo) – Cornelia; Romina Basso (mezzo) – Tolomeo; Tassis Christoyannis (baritone) – Achilla; Petros Magoulas (bass) – Curio; Nikos Spanatis (bass) – Nireno; Orchestra of Patras/George Petrou
rec. 24-30 July 2006, Patras, Greece
Italian libretto with English translation enclosed
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG 609 1604-2 [3 CDs: 75:50 + 78:48 + 77:23]
Giulio Cesare is generally regarded as Handel’s foremost opera. Some commentators hold it to be the best in the history of opera seria. I won’t dispute that statement. For me Handel is the supreme composer of baroque opera for several reasons:
His melodic inventiveness is inexhaustible.
Within the confines of the da capo aria he almost always manages to find personal expression.
He is masterly at conveying the feelings of the characters in the arias.
He even manages to make the secco recitatives come alive and when handled by good singers with feeling for theatre they can be wholly engrossing, not just a penny plain connection between two arias.
The librettos may be dated for those steeped in late 19th and early 20th century convention, where tautness of argument and higher dramatic temperature are central ingredients. The complexity of the plot may be a further hindrance to enjoyment. Haym’s libretto for Giulio Cesare is, on the other hand, a wonder of clarity and transparency and this is to a large extent the secret behind its unparalleled success in modern times. The first revival in the 20th century was at Göttingen in 1922 – then in a heavily altered form – and it was followed by performances in Munich in 1923 and a lot of other places. There have been more than 200 different productions in many countries. And there is no dearth of recordings on CD or DVD, an early success being an RCA set with Beverly Sills as Cleopatra. For me the 1991 Harmonia Mundi version conducted by René Jacobs has been a faithful companion for quite some time and a source of inspiration when I have been in baroque opera mood. A while ago I reviewed a live performance from Savona with an all-Italian cast. It was rather uneven vocally; the greatest asset was the male soprano Angelo Manzotti in the title role. There is a remarkable coincidence in the fact that it was recorded on 20 July 2006, the same day that Dabringhaus und Grimm had the last session out of four for the set under review. It is a studio production with all the benefits of excellent acoustics, perfect balance, no disturbing noises from stage movements or audience reactions and the option to re-record momentary lapses. And there is another advantage: these studio sessions were based on a staged production at the Thesaloniki Concert Hall in March 2008! I suppose this is a misprint. If it is, this is the only error in this wholly delightful production.
Rarely have I heard such committed playing from a period instrument ensemble. Crisp rhythms is a cliché in these circumstances: these players have a formidable thrust, an irresistible ‘swing’, in the jazz sense of the word, that hits you right in solar plexus. And it is virtuoso playing, to be sure. The brief sinfonia in the third act (CD 3, tr. 6) just flashes by, full of energy but hardly brushing against the ground. Throughout the performance the orchestra creates a rock-steady foundation for the singers, bustling with life, as though Handel provides the blood circulation of the characters.
Just as vivid are the ‘dull’ secco recitatives, which are mostly swift. When not they are permeated by drama and perfect timing, as a result of the experience from live performances. In fact all the participants are firmly inside their characters and audibly happy, amorous, desperate or full of vengeance. Within each scene the recitatives and the adjacent music are also tightly knit to a dramatic unit. This is baroque opera without longueurs. I can’t imagine a more suitable performance to convert non-baroque-opera-fans to the genre.
Those still not convinced must be made aware of the solo singing, which without exception is absolutely stunning. Technical accomplishment – and singing Handel requires a lot of virtuoso singing, often at breakneck tempo – beauty of tone and expressivity are characteristics throughout. The two leading characters, Giulio Cesare and Cleopatra, have eight arias each and the marvellous duet near the end (CD 3 tr. 23). Neither Kristina Hammarström nor Emanuela Galli have anything to fear from comparisons with singers on rival sets. Just listen to Hammarström’s coloratura in Empio, dirò, tu sei (CD 1 tr. 5) or Galli’s Tutto può donna vezzosa (CD 1 tr. 18) and even the worst sceptic must be won over. But Canadian mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi in the travesty role of Sesto is just as superb. Rarely if ever have I heard Svegliatevi (CD 1 tr. 9) sung with such flair. Irini Karaianni and Romina Basso in their somewhat smaller – but just as important – roles as Cornelia and Tolomeo are also on the same exalted level. Tassis Christoyannis as Achilla displays such vitality and dramatic insight that his every appearance is a gem to treasure. A former pupil of Aldo Protti, a leading Verdi singer in the 1950s and 1950s and Karajan’s choice as Iago for his legendary first Otello, he has learnt a thing or two about intensity in delivery.
My admiration for the Jacobs set is still undiminished, but the present one is a knock-out from the very first bars of the overture. By its side Jacobs feels slightly pale. True Handel lovers need both and those who intend to acquire their first Giulio Cesare are advised to start with this quite overwhelming version.
A knock-out from the very first bars of the overture ... see Full Review