C H Graun Cleopatra e Cesare
Within weeks of his accession to the Prussian throne in 1740 Frederick the Great had appointed Carl Heinrich Graun as his court Kapellmeister, before dispatching him to Italy to talent-scout for singers. Well before ascending the throne Frederick had made plans for a new opera house in Berlin but until such plans came to fruition operas were presented in a large upstairs drawing-room in the palace. Though not Graun’s first opera for Berlin,Cesare e Cleopatra – for some reason the title is given back to front in this recording – was that which inaugurated the new Royal Berlin Opera House, the Linden Opera, in December 1742. Between then and 1756 Graun was closely associated with the Berlin Opera, providing it with almost all the works staged within that period.
Cesare e Cleopatra is loosely based on Corneille’s La mort de Poupee but, like Handel’s Giulio Cesare which had first been staged in London 18 years earlier, places emphasis on the love affair between Caesar and Cleopatra rather than on Pompey’s death at the hands of Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy. Giovanni Bottarelli’s libretto would doubtless have appealed to Frederick who probably saw in Caesar’s military and political prowess an appealing image of himself. Graun was no Handel, but while there is nothing here to match the older composer’s psychological insight and therefore his depth and constancy of character portrayal, there is a wealth of music which, at its best – and it often is – beguiles the senses with its profusion of fine melodies and imaginative instrumental colouring.
One of the first of several outstandingly affective arias is given to Cornelia, in the second scene of Act 1. She has just witnessed the treacherous murder of husband Pompey at Ptolemy’s hands and expresses her grief in an F minor aria, noble, tender and deeply sorrowful. Lynne Dawson brings intensity and a tragic presence to the role. Caesar’s horror at Pompey’s death is genuine if, as here, short-lived. His mind is soon caught up with thoughts of Cleopatra as his aria, “Quel che lontano” (first disc, track 10) reveals. This role was originally a castrato one but is very well sung here by mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion. Janet Williams’s Cleopatra is wonderfully athletic. Graun has given her some exacting coloratura and Williams delivers it with effortless finesse. Her dazzling virtuosity in “Tra la procelle assorto” is not only splendidly dramatic but also musically satisfying. Robert Gambill’s Ptolemy is robust and agile, though his vocal timbre sometimes struck me as a little hard and unyielding. He, too, has some splendid music, for instance in “Sopportar non devo in pace” in Act 1. Klaus Hager is commanding as the Egyptian prince Achilla and Ralf Popken makes a plausible Arab prince, Arsace, though some readers may find his vocal timbre takes a little getting used to. The remaining roles are very well sung indeed.
What sets the seal on this performance of Graun’s opera is the consistent excellence of Concerto Koln. Just as the playing of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra enhanced the recent recording of Handel’s Ariodante (Harmonia Mundi, 4/95), so too does this experienced group of players make the music spring to life from the printed page. And all is directed with energy and dramatic insight by Rene Jacobs.
As I implied earlier, you will look almost in vain for anything approaching the subtlety or sustained dramatic development that characterizes Handelian opera. But Graun’s straightforward music, which adopts almost throughout the galant idiom, the fluency of his writing, and the sheer amiability of his style make the opera far from a disappointment from a purely musical standpoint. Only the overture, one of the last he wrote in the by then old-fashioned ‘French ouverture’ mould, harks back, at least in its ceremonial opening, to the baroque. An altogether stimulating release that should make wide appeal.'