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Fanfare Magazine: 36:4 (03-04/2013)
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Code-barres / Barcode: 0709861305360 (ID290)
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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal

If the first half of the 20th century can lay claim to discovering the beauty and depth of Mozart’s operas, the latter half (and up through current times) can do as much on behalf of Handel’s. More of his operas appear on CD and DVD with each passing year—and by my own admittedly quick count, there are now 13 audio-only commercial versions of Giulio Cesare available through U.S. distributors, though I’ve likely overlooked a few. Variety is not only the spice of life in this case, it’s the marketplace competition that promotes higher standards of performance.

This is one of the better versions I’ve heard. Not one of the singers fails to impress, but a couple at least possess features that might also be considered in context as flawed. One of these is Karina Gauvin, among my favorite contemporary singers. I was impressed previously by the clarity and tonal beauty she brought to Manlio in Vivaldi’s Tito Manlio, and much the same (though with criticism of her enunciation) as Seleuce in Tolomeo. Hers is a diamond-bright voice with curiously darker chest tones mixed evenly throughout the upper register: a firmly disciplined sound with a quick vibrato, endless breath support, and little softness about it. Her interpretation of Cleopatra follows her voice in this respect, finding the perfect mix of noble lament and vengeful fury in “Piangerò.” (This is the first of two selections from this recording I’d stack against anybody’s collection of Golden Age vintage performances, including my own.) But the wild joy of “Da tempeste” is beyond her, despite perfect agility in this fireworks aria; while the sex kittenish flippancy of “Non disperar” and the charm of “Tuttu può donna vezzosa” are also out of her reach, though she supplies a few attractive diminuendos that give a touch of intimacy. I admire her work here, but find the role outside her expressive ambit.

The problem associated with Marie-Nicole Lemieux is one I’ve noted repeatedly before in these pages, especially in both Vivaldi’s La fida ninfa and Griselda: a theatrically alive interpreter who sometimes resorts to anachronistic practices in order to display intense emotion. The worst culprit here is “Empio, dirò, tu sei,” where a laudable emphasis on consonants, coloration, phrasing, and volume are compromised by a pressure on the voice that at times literally loses all sense of pitch. (Sarah Connolly takes a similar approach in the 2005 Glyndebourne production on DVD, but she avoids going off the rails.) But when she isn’t doing verismo, she catches the right frame for each aria: the mood of secretive vigilance in “Va tacito e nascosto,” the anger of “Quel torrente,” and the anguished yearning of “Aure, deh, per pietà.” Lemieux’s voice still has the startling change in coloration between registers that it has possessed in recent years, but it keeps all its agility as well. In the final analysis, her Giulio Cesare is a notable assumption, despite impressions gathered from that first aria.

For the rest, Romina Basso offers the second of my two bits of Golden Age singing in “Priva son.” Her sumptuous contralto and exquisite phrasing makes more of this aria than any other version I’ve heard, and if “Non ha più” is too restrained to register the joy felt at the death of her husband’s murderer, it is again as beautiful and accurate a display of coloratura as one could wish for. Emőke Baráth’s agile, bright, creamy soprano fits young Sesto, though I wouldn’t have minded a dose of Lemieux’s over theatricality being infused in her arias. The same applies to Filippo Mineccia, the only countertenor in the cast, who shows a similar wonderful fluency without much “face.” There’s no gloating in his “Domerò la tua fierezza,” though plenty of fine singing, along with a startling change in color when he enters the tenor range. Finally, Johannes Weisser sounds uncomfortable with Achilla’s lowest notes, though he handles the coloratura reasonably well.

Most of the better recordings I’ve heard of Baroque opera have come from conductors, casts, and orchestras that have been involved in actual stage productions, as opposed to being assembled for concert performances, or brought in for studio recordings with no prior performances at all. Curtis made this Giulio Cesare in 2011, the same year he toured in Europe with nearly all these singers as they took part in this opera. What we have here, then, is a snapshot of a production that realizes Curtis’s concept of the work more thoroughly than an assembly line studio effort could achieve. It’s stylishly done, with considerable vigor from Il Complesso Barocco, and with sensitively chosen ornamentation in most da capo aria repeat sections. I did regret the absence of Nireno’s “Chi perde un momento,” and I would have liked to hear Karina Gauvin in Cleopatra’s “Troppo crudeli siete” (the second of three arias Handel provided for the Queen at the nadir of her fortunes in act III, before deciding upon the remarkably moving “Piangerò la sorte mia”) even if it had been banded separately from the entire work; but Curtis’s significant musical cuts are judicious and few. His pacing is both lively and varied. I take issue with the basic tempos in a couple of arias: Cornelia’s “Non ha più” isn’t lively enough to celebrate her joy over Tolomeo’s death, and Cesare’s “Non è si vago e bello” is too quick to register the spell cast by Cleopatra’s beauty. But these are minor issues; and as I found in his Fernando, Tolomeo, and Floridante, his conducting works upwards from a series of cleanly articulated, persuasively phrased rhythms—something of a baroque Pierre Monteux, in that respect. He performs with his singers instead of pushing them mercilessly. There is a real sense of theatrical growth and resolution about this set.

The competition is stiff. Looking at only the best among historically informed recordings, Jacobs/Concerto Köln (Harmonia Mundi 901385) is a bit more distinguished dramatically, but falls short with a stodgy, ineffective Cleopatra. Minkowski/Les Musiciens de Louvre (Archiv 000031402) is better still, with Magdalena Kožena’s sultry, willfully petulant Cleopatra, Bejun Mehta’s gloating Tolomeo, and Anna Sofie von Otter’s sensitive Sesto as standouts. This has been my favorite audio version for a while, though Curtis has some things I wouldn’t want to do without: Basso for one, Lemieux when she isn’t going over the top, and Gauvin’s prison scene. All three sets are well conducted, with the light, crisp, incisive sound of Il Complesso Barocco my choice among orchestras. In short, there’s much to enjoy in this Giulio Cesare. And as ever when faced with more than one good version of a given work, I can but repeat: Sample before you buy.

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