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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Giulio Cesare (1724) [221:00]
Marie-Nicole Lemieux - Giulio Cesare
Karina Gauvin - Cleopatra
Romina Basso - Cornelia
Emöke Baráth - Sesto
Filippo Mineccia - Tolomeo
Johannes Weisser - Achilla
Milena Sorti - Nireno
Gianluca Buratto - Curio
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
rec. Lonigo, Italy, November 2011
NAÏVE OP30536 [3 CDs: 77:55 + 74:08 + 68:27]

Since it first appeared in 1724, Giulio Cesare has been one of Handel’s most popular operas. It has also been the one that our modern age has taken to most readily. One of the very first Handel operas to be resurrected in the 20th century, it’s by some way the most recorded of all of them. When you compare it to the musical riches of some of the composer’s other Italian operas I admit that I sometimes struggle to see exactly why it is Cesare that has gained the precedence. Perhaps it’s the larger than life cast of characters and the fully drawn personalities, especially the complex figure of Cleopatra. Anyway, it was surely inevitable that at some stage Giulio Cesare would come to be recorded by Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco as part of their ever-expanding series of Handel operas. Happily, the final result sits comfortably and confidently alongside Curtis’s other Handel discs, as well as with other recordings of the work.
As with most of the Curtis recordings, it’s the integrity and quality of the instrumental playing that strikes the ear first. Handel’s Sinfonias come across as fresh and newly minted in his hands with Il Complesso Barocco’s characteristic sharpness of attack and clarity of sound, helped by their small forces. Cesare has more than the average number of instrumental interludes, including multi-part sinfonias in the second and third acts. The quality of the orchestral playing means that your attention never wavers during these moments - if anything I came to look forward to them. The various instrumental obbligatos are all exceptionally well played too, such as the horn in Cesare’s Va tacito e nascosto or the violin in Se in fiorito ameno prato.
If the instrumental performances provide the fertile soil for the set, then the singing is a knockout display of Baroque virtuosity from everyone involved. Curtis tends to work with singers that he knows well and with whom he has developed a high level of relationship; it shows here. Having recently collaborated with Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux for the album Streams of Pleasure, it is natural and delightful to see them return as the two leads in this set. The first thing that you notice about Lemieux’s Caesar is the rich, throaty depth to her voice, adding masculinity to her portrayal of the Roman leader and deepening the sense of his heroism. Lemieux uses her exciting coloratura with psychological insight and, importantly, accuracy. This can be heard in the heroic numbers such as Empio, dirò, tu sei and the enormously exciting Al lampo dell’armi. However, the voice is wonderfully sensual for the love music with Cleopatra, most especially a beautiful “Parnassus” scene at the start of Act 2. Karina Gauvin’s Cleopatra is well contrasted next to her. Where Lemieux is masculine and heroic Gauvin is all feminine sensuality; even more than that she charts the character’s development from brittle immaturity through suffering to knowledge. She is appropriately skittish as she mocks Ptolemy at the outset, but she turns this into heart-melting seductiveness in V’adoro, pupille. Her two laments are bewitching, especially Se pieta di me non senti. The confident bravura of her final Da tempeste comes across as a consummation of the character’s newly found maturity rather than display for its own sake.
Romina Basso’s Cornelia is of a similar pitch to Lemieux’s, but in this case she uses the voice to evoke wounded femininity. Her character is serious and injured - she spends the whole opera recovering from the news of her husband’s murder - so Basso’s portrayal is a world away from the sexuality of Cleopatra. Instead she has Cornelia sing with dignified beauty, especially in the remarkable Cessa omai di sospirare, but she also evokes wounded impotence in her early Priva son d’ogni conforto. As her son, Emöke Baráth is brighter and more unbridled. She brilliantly evokes Sesto’s youthful impetuosity and - often - his lack of common sense. The highlight is a beautiful Cara speme but even this is shot through with naivety, and her progress to adulthood is well depicted. Filippo Mineccia, the only counter-tenor in the cast, uses his voice to emphasise his role as the villain and to underline Ptolemy’s otherness and treachery. It lends his arias a slightly chilly tone that works very well. Johannes Weisser is also a very effective Achilla, rich and resonant with a touch of villainy that is none the less redeemable.
As always, though, it is Curtis that holds the whole show together. He approaches this, as with his other Handel recordings, with fresh eyes and ears so as to reawaken us to how effective this opera can be for our own time; not just for Handel’s. This recording made me marvel all over again at the psychological penetration of Handel’s music. His understanding of human nature remains remarkable nearly 300 years after his time. Amongst Handel’s treasure box of humanity this opera gives us remarkable studies of souls falling in love (or lust), the corrupting desire for power, or the capacity of the human heart for self-deception. Curtis reveals all of these things, and more, with freshness and revelatory clarity, buoyed up by faultless musical standards.
With this Handel opera more than with most, we come up against the issue of comparisons. The CDs that have impressed me most in recent years have been those by René Jacobs and Mark Minkowski. There have also been some tremendously insightful DVD productions, most notably from David McVicar at Glyndebourne and Francisco Negrin in Copenhagen. This one is at least capable of holding its own alongside them. More significantly for collectors of Curtis’s Handel, though, this set can look in the face any one of its companions in the series. My own favourite is still Curtis’ Alcina, mainly because it’s a better opera given a truly remarkable performance. This won’t put anyone off this Cesare which takes its place alongside the best. Full texts and translations are included in the accompanying booklet.
Simon Thompson