Handel Giulio Cesare
If this isn't the greatest of all baroque operas, indeed the greatest opera before Mozart, then I really don't know what is. I offer this thought in the flush of excitement after listening to a fine, if not flawless, new recording, but feel fairly confident that I shall feel the same tomorrow and next week, and for quite a long time: and I suggest that many who listen to this recording will probably share these reactions. More than any other Handel opera, Giulio Cesare goes from one superb number to another, covering a vast range of emotion—the triumphant, the amorous, the vengeful, the deeply pathetic, almost anything you can name. Further, the character of Cleopatra, which seems to develop in a way that characters in baroque opera normally do not, is perhaps the fullest and most fascinatingly drawn of all Handel's stage women: and the characterization of women habitually drew from Handel his most penetrating insights.
The great strength of this recording is that it treats the work as a live piece of musical drama, in which everyone is involved at an intense level from beginning to end. Rene Jacobs, whose conducting sometimes seemed a shade tentative in his early recordings (I am thinking for example of the Gluck Orfeo, though I have nevertheless always admired it), seems totally in command and with a clear view of the piece and how it functions. I don't always agree with the view, but it is a powerful and persuasive one. It leads him to splendidly sturdy rhythms and lively tempos, to recitatives that, if occasionally too slow, often come as near as can be to the ideal of 'musicalized' conversation and sometimes are very dramatic—listen for example to the group near the opening of Act 3—and to a real concentration of feeling in the numbers where that is appropriate: that is, in the elegiac music for Cornelia, for Cleopatra in her pathetic situations, and perhaps above all for Caesar himself in the two great accompanied recitatives, one over the tomb of his late rival Pompey, done to death by the treacherous Ptolemy, the other on his survival after his leap into the sea when cornered. What I am slightly less happy about is the handling of the orchestra, and especially the lower instruments. I don't know whether this may not be a trick of the rather boomy acoustic, but the cellos and basses often seem to be playing roughly and crudely. Their accents are sometimes absurdly heavy, and this represents a real (and sometimes disconcerting) lapse of judgement and a real flaw. The continuo lines are never really as well, as sensitively or as functionally shaped as they ought to be. Sometimes, too, Jacobs writes in extra music for them, for example an intrusive series of interjections when Caesar finally comes to rescue Cleopatra in the last act. (I am sure these are not in the authoritative edition by Winton Dean and Sarah Fuller that, very properly, forms the basis of this performance; I imagine the faithfully reproduced harmonic error in ''Aure, deh, per pieta'' originates in the Chrysander text.)
The cast has no weaknesses and many strengths. Foremost among them is the Julius Caesar of Jennifer Larmore, whom I do not remember hearing before and shall certainly hope to hear often again. With her firm, focused and beautifully formed voice, she does much better in this alto castrato part than I think any countertenor could. Burney once wrote of the original singer, the famous Senesino, ''thundering out his divisions'', and this is the nearest to ''thundering out'' that I have heard from a singer at this pitch; in the final aria of triumph, ''Qual torrente'', the semiquaver runs are as brilliant, as exact and as powerfully rhythmic as one could imagine—a real tour de force. Going back to the beginning of the opera, I found her vibrato a shade too marked in the opening aria, but here and in ''Non e si vaga'', later in the act, the full and rich lower register particularly compelled admiration. I wish the ''hunting'' aria, ''Va tacito'', had been done a little quicker; but the horn playing is splendid. Another mistake, surely, is the vast rallentando in ''Al lampo dell' armi'', which rather seems to contradict Caesar's eagerly belligerent sentiments. Larmore excels in the grave music of the accompanied recitatives, to which she brings considerable weight and a real sense of the Roman honour and integrity that Handel and his librettist were clearly so intent on, and successful in, conveying.
Barbara Schlick's Cleopatra is a success, too. She possibly lacks the sensuous warmth that can so effectively irradiate this role, for example in ''V'adoro, pupille'' and ''Piangero'' (which however is beautifully phrased), but the quick numbers demanding agility and spirit go especially well—the trills in ''Tu la mia stelle'' have a delightful glitter, ''Venere bella'' is graceful and spirited—and it would be greedy to ask for more. There is a sterling Cornelia from Bernarda Fink, firmly and evenly sung, with due depth of tone and feeling in ''Priva son'' (taken very slowly) and the noble ''Nel tuo seno''. Sextus is rightly taken by a soprano (as in the original; Handel later adapted and rewrote it for tenor), the very capable Marianne Rorholm, aptly boyish in tone, suitably fiery in ''Svegliatevi'', vigorous and brilliant in ''L'aure che spira''. Ptolemy, the villian of the piece, is well done by the countertenor Derek Lee Ragin, whom I admired particularly in his recitative near the end of Act 2 and in the marvellous last-act aria, with its wilful violin line, ''Domero la tua fierezza''; he manages to convey the character's malice without using unmusical means. Furio Zanasi sings the two bass arias very ably and Dominque Visse does an aria for Nirenus, Cleopatra's eunuch, as an appendix (it was written for a revival; no text or translation is provided). Most of the singers provide occasional ornamentation, and most but not all of it is tasteful, restrained and musical. But I do wish singers would desist from the habit of glossing their cadences with excursions to the top of their compass; eighteenth-century singers did not value height and modern ones make a poor effect by venturing into regions where they can't comfortably sing.
There have been several previous recordings of this opera, but none of this quality, consistency or style. It is wonderful music, and in spite of minor imperfections Rene Jacobs and his musicians give a compelling account of it. Warmly recommended.'