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Fanfare Magazine: 36:4 (03-04/2013)
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Reviewer: Lynn René Bayley

I wasn’t sure if this recording would reach me in time to include with this period’s reviews, but thankfully it did, and so I can not only compare it to the recording with Ann Murray and Ivor Bolton reviewed elsewhere in this issue but also to my prior favorite recording, the René Jacobs-Jennifer Larmore performance on Harmonia Mundi. Quite simply, it’s terrific, and I say this in full knowledge that Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s sometimes-aggressive vibrato will not be to everyone’s liking.

Reviewing an earlier recital disc by Lemieux, I praised her for the consistently incendiary drama of her interpretations and the musicality of her phrasing, but criticized her aggressively fluttery vibrato. Here, in a complete opera performance, I noted that her aggressive vibrato did emerge in those passages where she pressurized the voice, but dropped off considerably as her volume level decreased. Moreover, she has a stunning command of dynamics and can distinguish between her vibrato and such vocal embellishments as shakes and trills, which is something that my bête noir soprano of the 1960s and early ’70s, Pilar Lorengar, could not do. Throughout this performance I was consistently impressed by Lemieux’s management of her high and low notes, being able to give dramatic emphasis to both in turn as needed without sounding as if she were tearing her voice apart at both ends. Overall, I found her performance to be even “edgier” in dramatic emphasis than that of Larmore on the Harmonia Mundi set.

I also felt that countertenor Filippo Mineccia (Tolomeo) had a firmer voice, if not a much more attractive one, than Derek Lee Ragin on Harmonia Mundi. Karina Gauvin, my new Queen of the Baroque, is simply stunning as Cleopatra, but I expected that; and her performance, too, edges out Barbara Schlick on HM. The other singers are about equivalent to their counterparts on HM with the exception of our Sesto. On the Jacobs performance, Marianna Rorhølm had the requisite fire and drama for Sesto but an unattractive, squally, and slightly uneven voice production, whereas Emőke Baráth is just the opposite. Her voice is completely steady, with a simply gorgeous, almost flawless tone quality, but in her vengeance arias she sounds only slightly angry, as if she’s spotted someone wearing the same dress as she, not really livid with anger. (Ironically, however, she does sing more dramatically in the secco recitatives!)

Where this performance scores points over its competitors, however, is in the excellent conducting of Alan Curtis. He contributed a two-page essay to the liner notes on how he feels that some of Handel’s tempos are taken too slowly, and so used this performance as an object-lesson to other historically informed conductors, and he also encouraged—and at times even wrote—some of the variations sung and played by the cast and orchestral soloists. This is especially evident in Caesar’s most famous aria, “Va tacito e nascosto” in act I, where the horn part now includes embellishments and variants not normally heard. The most obvious to the listener will be the coloratura variations in the second half of the aria, where the horn is very nearly as baroque (in the adjectival sense of the word) in his ornaments as the singer. This is an entirely valid reading. Someone close to me said that it sounded as if it were a bit too much “gingerbread,” like the Bonynge-Sutherland recording of Don Giovanni, but Mozart is not Handel or vice-versa, and there is a good 60 years (give or take) separating these two operas stylistically. Yet even in the introductory part of the aria, one can hear the horn play an appoggiatura from an octave below to the written note an octave higher, which may disconcert some listeners, but is supported by historical research.

One of the most heart-stopping moments on this recording is Caesar’s aria “Se in fiorito ameno prato” in act II, where Lemieux is accompanied by a solo violin (not identified, but I’d guess first violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky) in Sinfonia concertante style with exquisite effect. Here, however, I must disagree strongly with Curtis on his insistence that the violin play consistently with straight tone. As research into the era will show, string players of that time alternated between straight tone and the use of vibrato for expressive effect, and without the moments of vibrato the straight tone sounds monotonous; yet, to his credit, Sinkovsky (if it is he) plays so sensuously even with straight tone that the artistic sin committed here is venial and not mortal.

As is so often the case with baroque (in the general stylistic sense of the term) operas in general, much of this is static. All of the drama of the situation is in the recitatives; the arias, no matter how dramatic, are essentially long-winded time-killers, “stand there and sing” moments that do not move the drama forward. Over the years, H.I.P. performers have, rightly in my view, modified historically informed practice with our more modern tendency towards acting the drama out. In this recording, this sometimes extends to the arias, but of course not always. What on earth can Caesar do, for instance, when he stands there singing “Of you do not take pity on me O righteous heavens, I will die; Give peace to my torment or my soul will expire” over and over and over and over again for nearly nine minutes? The answer is, absolutely nothing. Comical in effect or not, the more historically justified way of acting out these kind of operas was in fact replicated at New York City Center back in the mid 1960s, in the production of Giulio Cesare that used a corrupted version of the score but recreated the stiff, melodramatic, almost silent-movie-like hand and body movements of the principal singers (Beverly Sills sang Cleopatra and Norman Triegle Caesar). We do what we can nowadays to make things interesting, but if you watch one of these operas onstage or on video (and I’ve suffered through both), you realize that in essence they are costumed galas for six or seven opera singers to strut their stuff.

That being said, Giulio Cesare is one of Handel’s three best operas, the other two being Amadigi di Gaula (an extraordinarily inventive score) and Rodelinda. Overall, I would have to judge this new recording of it to be the finest I’ve ever heard, surpassing even the Jacobs performance for reasons detailed above. There is one curious moment, immediately following Caesar’s aria “Se pieta di me non senti,” where the libretto and the track listing in the booklet clearly indicate a sung recitative for Ptolemy (“Di auel ch’avete”), but the recording blithely skips it entirely to get to his arioso, “Belle dee di questo core.” I must also comment on the oddness of sonics. The orchestra seems recorded at a slight distance from the microphone (which, by the way, doesn’t help hornist Johannes Hinterholzer in “Va tacito,” especially since he seems to have his hand too far in the bell of his instrument), and the singers also seem to be naturally recorded in the sung recits, but as soon as you switch to an aria the solo singer seems to step into a sound booth that cuts off the natural hall ambience (which one can still clearly hear around the instruments) to make the solo singer sound more “focused,” but this has the disconcerting effect of presenting an unnatural sound balance. However, this, too, is not a mortal enough sin to warrant disregarding this recording, merely a warning that the listener may experience a slightly schizophrenic difference of sound balance. This is my new reference recording of this opera.


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