HANDEL Giulio Cesare in Egitto
The vast discography of Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724) is a proverbial mixed bag. The Bavarian State Opera’s 1994 production typified the modernist traditionalism of ridiculous concepts invented to stop the audience from getting too bored with Handel’s work. Sir Peter Jonas’s polemical booklet-note insinuates that anyone who disagrees with such a supposedly ‘relevant’ approach is clearly not intelligent enough, but it is not difficult to understand the damaging impact of heavy cuts and ending Act 2 in the wrong place. Ivor Bolton’s coaching of the Bavarian orchestra results in a convincing pseudo-Baroque style; Cesare’s ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ is diminished by its reckless briskness; but I am glad to have heard Susan Gritton’s moving performance of ‘Se pietà’.
Even accomplished studio versions of the opera are seldom consistently satisfying, so there is room for Alan Curtis’s stylistic sincerity, fidelity to the unabridged text and sensible casting. In a few previous projects Il Complesso Barocco’s playing sounded disengaged from the emotional ebb and flow of the drama but on this occasion it never seems perfunctory. Judiciously paced recitatives are accompanied unobtrusively and always permit the poetry to flow with the utmost clarity; this allows the listener to absorb the delivery of characters’ lines. It is a refreshing antidote to Baroque opera performances which seem obsessed with hurrying up as much as possible in order to get to the next aria, or spice up the continuo parts to distraction.
Curtis wisely pays diligent attention to Handel’s tempo markings: Cesare’s ‘Empio, dirò, tu sei’ has righteous anger but is not so rushed that the words are lost; the mournful ombra music in the middle of Sesto’s vengeance aria ‘Svegliatevi nel core’ is ideally spellbinding, whereas its fast sections are dogmatic enough to convey determination rather than merely superficial volatility. Tolomeo’s spiteful ‘L’empio, sleale, indegno’ is adeptly characterised by the animated strings, and Cesare’s ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ is judged astutely as a stealthy conspiratorial aside to the audience. A genuine effort has been made to make the onstage band in the Parnassus scene (‘V’adoro pupille’) sound from a distance and the spatial texture with the rest of the orchestra is beguiling.
There are no weak links vocally. Marie-Nicole Lemieux is a dependable Cesare and Karina Gauvin is an eloquent, steely Cleopatra. Emo˝ke Baráth’s Sesto is ideally fresh-voiced and Romina Basso is a perfect fit for Cornelia; their unforced voices blend together exquisitely in an achingly beautiful performance of the duet ‘Son nata a lagrimar’. It also seems right that Johannes Weisser sings Achilla’s ‘Tu se il cor’ initially as an attempt to be genuinely seductive rather than to clumsily bully Cornelia from the outset. My only reservation is that in some slower arias fiddly embellishments seem convoluted where I would have liked to sense Handel’s melodic genius breathing more freely. However, Curtis’s outstanding performance ranks comfortably alongside George Petrou’s dissimilar (and occasionally quirky) version as the most satisfying studio recordings of Handel’s most famous opera.