Handel's Giulio CesareHandel's Giulio Cesare

The Gramophone Choice

Jennifer Larmore (mez) Giulio Cesare Barbara Schlick (sop) Cleopatra Bernarda Fink (mez) Cornelia Marianne Rørholm (mez) Sesto Derek Lee Ragin (counterten) Tolomeo Furio Zanasi (bass) Achilla Olivier Lallouette (bar) Curio Dominique Visse (counterten) Nireno Concerto Köln / René Jacobs

Harmonia Mundi HMC90 1385/7 (4h 3' · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon

Handel’s greatest heroic opera sports no fewer than eight principal characters and one of the largest orchestras he ever used. Undoubtedly this, and the singing of Francesca Cuzzoni (Cleopatra) and Senesino (Caesar), helped to launch Giulio Cesare into the enduring popularity that it enjoys to this day. But it’s primarily the quality of the music, with barely a weak number in four hours of entertainment, that’s made it such a favourite with audiences. Here the period instruments are an immediate advantage in giving extra ‘bite’ to the many moments of high drama without threatening to drown the singers in forte passages. 

This performance is a particularly fine one with an excellent cast; Caesar, originally sung by a castrato, is here taken by the young mezzo, Jennifer Larmore. She brings weight and inte­grity to the role, seemingly untroubled by the demands of the final triumphant aria, ‘Qual torrente’. Occasionally her vibrato becomes intrusive, but that’s a minor quibble in a performance of this stature. Handel could just as well have called his opera ‘Cleopatra’ as she’s the pivotal element in the drama, a role taken here by Barbara Schlick and sung with acuity and imagination. If Cleopatra represents strength in a woman, then Cornelia is surely the tragic figure, at the mercy of events. Her first aria, ‘Priva son’, here taken very slowly, shows Bernarda Fink to be more than equal to the role, admirable in her steady tone and dignity of character. Derek Lee Ragin’s treacherous Ptolemy is also memorable, venom and fire injected into his agile voice. 

A first-rate cast is supported by René Jacobs and Concerto Köln on fine form, though the continuo line is sometimes less than ideally clear. The recording is excellent.

 

Additional Recommendations

Kristina Hammarström (mez) Giulio Cesare Emanuela Galli (sop) Cleopatra Mary-Ellen Nesi (mez) Sesto Irini Karaianni (mez) Cornelia Romina Basso (mez) Tolomeo Tassis Christoyannis (bar) Achilla Petros Magoulas (bass) Curio Nikos Spanatis (counterten) Nireno Orchestra of Patras / George Petrou

Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG609 1604-2 (3h 52’ · DDD) Buy from Amazon

This new recording of Handel’s complete 1724 text, studio-made but based on a stage production in Thessaloniki, comfortably holds its own with the two fine versions from René Jacobs (see above) and Marc Minkowski (Archiv). George Petrou directs his alert period band with style and sensibility. His tempo choices are occasionally extreme – languorously protracted in Cornelia’s lament ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto’, frenetically driven in Caesar’s ‘Qual torrente’. Several times, especially in the first act, one wanted the extended secco recitatives to move more fluently. But despite minor quibbles, the performance, animated by a colourful continuo battalion (two harpsichords, plus strumming theorbo), equals Minkowski, and surpasses Jacobs, in theatrical verve. 

Giulio Cesare is in essence a celebration of the power of sex, embodied in the infinitely alluring figure of Cleopatra. Barbara Schlick, for Jacobs, was bright and nimble, but distinctly virginal, while Magdalena Kožená, for Minkowski, combined sensuality with a certain regal detachment. Emanuela Galli certainly generates a stronger sexual charge than either. She sings her playful numbers in the first act with knowing, coquettish grace, then finds warmer, more voluptuous colourings for the ravishing ‘Parnassus’ tableau, ‘V’adoro pupille’. After Cleopatra has herself succumbed to the passion she aroused in Caesar, Galli brings a tragic intensity and individuality of nuance to ‘Se pietà’ and ‘Piangerò’. Occasionally, though, her taste in ornamentation seems questionable – more Verdi’s Violetta than Handel’s Cleopatra. 

Dubiously extravagant da capo embellishments also mar one or two other arias. Still, with the partial exception of Irini Karaianni’s dignified but rather matt-toned Cornelia (far less affecting than Jacobs’s Bernarda Fink), the singers, all round, compare well with their counterparts on the rival recordings. Swedish mezzo Kristina Hammarström has both the swashbuckling vigour for Caesar’s heroic arias and the intense inwardness for his great soliloquy at Pompey’s tomb. Though inclined to go berserk in da capos, Romina Basso’s androgynous contralto makes a superb Ptolemy: sleazy, insinuating, neurotically unstable, yet without the hint of camp petulance that countertenors in the role seem unable to avoid. She uses her words more vividly than any of the other singers bar Mary-Ellen Nesi, whose Sextus – fiery, headstrong and thrillingly sung – is surely the finest on disc. Sextus’s magnificent ‘vengeance’ aria ‘L’angue offeso’ is a highlight of the whole performance. The incisive-toned Tassis Christoyannis makes a high-testosterone, impulsive Achilla. 

Here’s a Giulio Cesare to return to at least as often as the rival versions, for much superb ­Handel-singing, for the lively and inventive continuo playing, and for a dramatic flair and immediacy that, at its best, eclipses all comers.

 

Julius Caesar (sung in English)

Dame Janet Baker (mez) Julius Caesar Valerie Masterson (sop) Cleopatra Sarah Walker (mez) Cornelia Della Jones (mez) Sextus James Bowman (counterten) Ptolemy John Tomlinson (bass) Achillas Christopher Booth-Jones (bar) Curio David James (counterten) Nirenus English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Charles Mackerras

Chandos Opera in English CHAN3019 (3h 4' · DDD · S/T). Recorded 1984. Buy from Amazon

This opera was a personal triumph for Dame Janet Baker. As Caesar, she arms the voice with an impregnable firmness, outgoing and adventurous. Valerie Masterson shares the honours with Dame Janet, a Cleopatra whose bright voice gains humanity through ordeal. The tinkle of ­surface-wear clears delightfully in her later arias, sung with a pure tone and high accomplishment. As a total production, Julius Caesar was an ­outstanding achievement in ENO’s history. Strongly cast, it had a noble Cornelia in Sarah Walker, a high-spirited Sextus in Della Jones, and in James Bowman a Ptolemy whose only fault was that his voice lacked meanness of timbre appropriate to the odious character. John Tomlinson’s massive bass also commands attention. Mackerras’s conducting is impeccable and the opera is given in clear, creditable English. 

 

DVD Recommendation

Sarah Connolly (mez) Giulio Cesare Danielle de Niese (sop) Cleopatra Patricia Bardon (mez) Cornelia Angelika Kirchschlager (mez) Sesto Christophe Dumaux (counterten) Tolomeo Christopher Maltman (bar) Achillas Alexander Ashworth (bass) Curio Rachid Ben Abdeslam (counterten) Nireno Glyndebourne Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / William Christie

Stage director David McVicar

Video director Robin Lough

Opus Arte DVD OA0950D; Blu-ray OABD7024D (3h 46’ · NTSC · 1080i · 16:9 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 surround · 0 · s) Recorded live at Glyndebourne, 2005. Buy from Amazon

David McVicar’s 2005 staging, revived the following summer, provoked a deal of contrasting views among the critical fraternity but was adored by the Glyndebourne public. Chief cause of their delight was the overtly sexual, high-hoofing performance of Cleopatra by the irrepressible Danielle de Niese (who is accorded a delightful 22-minute narrative on her Glyndebourne experience among the extras here). Her vocal command and stage presence are spectacular in every sense, and from her first aria she utterly seduces her audience. McVicar took advantage of her attractive skills to build the opera around her personality.

We are here in the high noon of British imperialism and the Ottoman Empire, with Caesar more like a late-19th-century English general than a Roman emperor, and with the Egyptian milieu heavily underlined by milling extras, now always a not altogether welcome feature of a McVicar production. They clutter the stage and draw attention away from the principals, although one has to admit that the highly disciplined and often captivating choreography is brilliantly executed within Robert Jones’s exotic sets. McVicar does at least allow the moments of serious drama to be played out without undue interference – such as the deeply moving duet that closes Act 1 and Cleopatra’s ‘Piangerò’. Finally it has to be said that only Glyndebourne allows for the rehearsal time to prepare such a complex and ingenious staging.

The musical side of things is equally well prepared and thought through under William Christie’s knowledgeable and commanding direction. He manages to balance with the same finesse and care the light and serious parts of the score, even if his love for Handel leads him to a few self-indulgently slow tempi. The OAE play lovingly and with period skills for him. By the time of this DVD recording, near the end of the run, the whole thing moves with eloquence matched by elegance.

De Niese sings her airy numbers as to the manner born, seconded by expertly erotic dancing. She manages most of the emotional substance of her sadder arias, but they sometimes seem wanting in the tonal weight ideally required. Sarah Connolly’s thoroughly believable Caesar is sung with her firm tone and well schooled mastery of Handelian style, including subtle embellishments. This wilful and imperial Caesar manages to change moods as his music demands.

Some of the most accomplished and tender Handelian singing comes from Patricia Bardon’s moving Cornelia and Angelika Kirchschlager’s concerned Sextus, although the latter does slightly overplay the character’s seemingly neurotic state of mind following his father’s brutal death. The young countertenor Christophe Dumaux playing Ptolemy is suitably brat-like and spoilt. He, like most of the cast, fulfils all the stringent demands of this very physical staging. Christopher Maltman makes Achillas as nasty as he should be. The sense of teamwork all round is confirmed in the interviews included in the extras. Robin Lough’s DVD direction is faultless.

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