10 February 2010

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – GIULIO CESARE (K. Hammarström, E. Galli, M.-E. Nesi, I. Karaianni, R. Basso; MDG)

Georg Friedrich Händel: GIULIO CESARE (G. Petrou; MDG)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17 – K. Hammarström (Cesare), E. Galli (Cleopatra), M.-E. Nesi (Sesto), I. Karaianni (Cornelia), R. Basso (Tolomeo), T. Christoyannis (Achilla), P. Magoulas (Curio), N. Spanatis (Nireno); Orchestra of Patras; George Petrou [recorded in Patras, Greece, 24 – 30 July 2006; MDG 609 1604-2]

It could be argued that Händel’s Giulio Cesare is, in a sense, the La Bohème of Baroque opera: surely performed both more frequently and more widely afield than any of Händel’s other operas, Giulio Cesare is the most popular of Händel’s operas and the one that is most known even by audiences with limited exposure to Baroque opera.  This familiarity led to the long-held assumption that Giulio Cesare was likewise the finest of Händel’s operatic scores, a supposition that has been challenged during the past two decades by more frequent – and more impressive – performances of Händel’s lesser-known operas.  What cannot be challenged is the fact that the premiere of Giulio Cesare on 20 February 1724, with a cast that included the famous Senesino and Francesca Cuzzoni as Cesare and Cleopatra, was one of the greatest successes of Händel’s London career, the first production being followed by three London revivals during Händel’s lifetime and numerous productions on the Continent.  Giulio Cesare likewise was the first of Händel’s operas to reclaim a place, albeit tenuous at first, in international mainstream repertories, its familiar but distorted (the historical Caesar seemingly possessed little of the redeeming nobility granted by Händel, if Classical accounts are to be believed) portrayal of Roman affairs – both amorous and bellicose – in Egypt causing audiences to believe that the opera is at least superficially more ‘relevant.’  During the past thirty years, it has been rare in any operatic season for Giulio Cesare to fail to be in the repertory of at least one of the world’s most important opera companies.

David Daniels as Cesare and Ruth Ann Swenson as Cleopatra in the John Pascoe production of GIULIO CESARE at the MET, 2007 [Photo by Marty Sohl]

The music of Giulio Cesare is too well-known to require extensive commentary.  Händel created for each of his leading artists a clutch of celebrated, musically remarkable arias: ‘Empio, dirò, tu sei,’ ‘Non è si vago e bello,’ ‘Va tacito e nascosto,’ ‘Al lampo dell’armi,’ and the gorgeous ‘Aure, deh, per pietà’ for Cesare, composed for Senesino; ‘Non disperar, chi sa,’ ‘Tu la mia stella sei,’ ‘V’adoro pupille,’ ‘Se pietà di me non senti,’ the towering ‘Piangerò la sorte mia,’ and the suitably rollicking ‘Da tempeste il legno infranto’ for Cleopatra, composed for Francesca Cuzzoni; ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto,’ ‘Non ha più che temere,’ and the sublime duet (with Sesto) ‘Son nata a lagrimar’ for Cornelia, composed for Anastasia Robinson; ‘Svegliatevi nel core,’ ‘Cara speme, questo core,’ ‘L’angue offeso mai riposa,’ ‘L’aure che spira,’ and ‘La giustizia ha già sull’arco’ for Sesto, composed for Margherita Durastanti; and the famously fiery ‘L’empio, sleale, indegno’ for Tolomeo, composed for Gaetano Berenstadt.  Whether or not one’s personal preferences award the score the distinction of being Händel’s finest opera, Giulio Cesare is a piece of unusual worth even among the rich field of Händel’s mature works for the theatre.

Despite its relative popularity and abundance of musical treasures, Giulio Cesare has hardly been a frequently-encountered title in the record shop.  With fewer than ten commercial recordings in its discography, Giulio Cesare is far more represented on records than its brethren among Händel’s operas, but the collector has hardly been spoiled for choice.  Most of the early recordings – able efforts, including the famous DGG set with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the RCA recording that preserves the sparkling Cleopatra of Beverly Sills – utilize role transpositions that wreak havoc on Händel’s carefully-tailored vocal writing.  Later recordings, most of them using period instruments, have grappled with the question of whether to employ countertenors in castrato roles.  Critics have been consistent in citing the recording on harmonia mundi conducted by René Jacobs (himself a countertenor, though he does not contribute vocally to his Giulio Cesare) as the finest recorded performance available, but no single recording is without flaws.

Offering for the first time on disc the complete 1724 version of the score without cuts or transpositions, the German firm Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm continue their series of Händel operas (already recorded were Arianna in Creta, Oreste, and Tamerlano) with the Greek period-instrument ensemble Orchestra of Patras and conductor George Petrou with this performance of Giulio Cesare.  As in their previous Händel recordings, the Orchestra of Patras meet every virtuosic requirement of Händel’s score, rising to the differing challenges of the music with confident mastery.  The continuo (consisting of theorbo, harpsichords, and ‘cello) is unfailingly musical and lively without being overbearing.  Maestro Petrou displays a continuing affinity for Händel’s music and an awareness of the difficulties of Giulio Cesare: if every problem is not definitively solved in this performance, Maestro Petrou never fails to make honest efforts and put forth viable solutions.  It is indicative of the quality of Maestro Petrou’s leadership that, in a performance that spans only a few minutes short of four hours, the musical progress never seems to languish.

It is rare to have no countertenors in principal roles in a performance or recording of Giulio Cesare, but this recording features only a single countertenor, Nikos Spanatis, in the small role of Nireno.  Mr. Spanatis sings with a lovely tone in his limited contributions and brings energy to his recitatives.  Energy is also central to the performances of baritone Tassis Christoyannis as Achilla and bass Petros Magoulas as Curio.  Mr. Christoyannis in particular is superbly effective, the coloratura hurdles in his arias cleared with flexibility to spare.  Both Mr. Christoyannis and Mr. Magoulas have attractive voices with streaks of steel that suit their roles.

As Cleopatra, Italian soprano Emanuela Galli – a frequent presence on the European Early Music scene – is dramatically convincing, all charming femininity in her seductive music and proudly scolding daughter of Pharaoh in her vengeance music.  A significant portion of the musical distinction of a performance of Giulio Cesare rests on its Cleopatra, and unfortunately Ms. Galli lets the recording down somewhat in this regard.  The voice is lovely and even across the entire range required by the role, but the tone is also unyielding and slightly dull.  The virtuosic showpieces are tossed off with aplomb, but the introverted numbers suffer from foursquare phrasing and a tenseness in the singing that distracts from the beauty of the music.  The great ‘Piangerò la sorte mia,’ as gorgeous an aria as ever Händel composed for any of his anguished heroines, is compromised by frankly awful ornamentation of the da capo that distorts the music and ruins the overall impact of the aria.  Ms. Galli possesses a fine voice and a very impressive technique, but she is only partially successful in a role that demands complete mastery if the integrity of the opera as a whole is not to be jeopardized.

Somewhat more successful is the Cornelia of Greek mezzo-soprano Irini Karaianni.  As with virtually all of her recorded rivals, Ms. Karaianni is a mezzo-soprano in what is decidedly a contralto role: even the greatest among recorded Cornelias, Christa Ludwig, struggled somewhat with the low tessitura, though she ultimately won the laurels.  Ms. Karaianni creates an impassioned Cornelia, humble and touching in her grief but bitingly indignant in her rejection of Achilla’s advances.  Unfortunately, Ms. Karaianni also indulges in some questionable embellishing, raising the suspicion that Maestro Petrou was not ideally attentive to the preservation of musical continuity.  The sublime ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto,’ remarkable for its penultimate dissonances that seem to linger indefinitely without resolution, is ended by Ms. Karaianni with a sort of vocalise that meanders bizarrely until landing with the orchestra in the tonic: unnecessary and inauthentic, the trick destroys the delicate and heartrending effect of Händel’s music.  Both Ms. Galli and Ms. Karaianni display very good voices and qualities that suggest complete suitability for their roles, but they misjudge the extent to which they can ‘personalize’ their performances: personal touches are always welcome, but never at the expense of the natural dignity of the music.

Swedish mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström Swedish mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström is a strong Cesare who avoids the pitfalls of over-zealous ornamentation.  Ms. Hammarström perhaps realizes that Cesare’s formidable music is impressive enough without embellishing it within an inch of its life and set out merely to sing the music directly and well.  This she achieves in spades.  Coloratura is dispatched with astonishing ease, and the magnificent accompanied recitatives – a novelty in Italian opera seria of Händel’s time – are shaped with dramatic force and dignity befitting a Roman hero (albeit one slightly more honorable than history might allow).  While always singing with a beautiful timbre, Ms. Hammaström is also convincing as a male character equally adept at making love and war.  Nothing is missing in Ms. Hammarström’s performance, which must be considered alongside Jennifer Larmore’s performance for René Jacobs as a near-ideal portrayal of Cesare.

Greek mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi Also stunning is the Sesto of Greek mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi, a regular participant in MDG’s Händel series.  Sesto is a peculiarly challenging role, one of an adolescent boy in hormonal overdrive that was composed by Händel for a female singer.  The problem of Sesto for a female singer (or, indeed, for a countertenor) is to be convincingly masculine without going too far with the histrionics.  Certainly, over-the-top antics are simmering just under the surface in Sesto’s nervous vengeance music, but the critical element of any successful performance of the role is to avoid allowing those antics to reach a boil and spill over.  In this performance, Ms. Nesi is marvelous, fiery and credibly adolescent without ever seeming ridiculous.  Psychologically, it might be argued that the events of Giulio Cesare force Sesto to mature: beginning with the murder of his father, the quest for vengeance and the filial duty to protect his mother lead to Sesto’s slaying of Tolomeo, an ostensible journey from boyhood to manhood.  Ms. Nesi’s performance never condescends to the overtly passionate nature of Sesto’s predicament, every vocal feat expressing a gesture of conscience.  Musically, Ms. Nesi’s performance is brilliant, the arias sung with extraordinary technique and shimmering tone.  ‘Svegliatevi nel core,’ Sesto’s most famous aria, receives one of its finest performances on records, and Ms. Nesi’s performance only grows in strength and command from there.  This is singing that rivals that of Marilyn Horne for sheer vocal prowess and is even more consistently stylish.

Italian mezzo-soprano Romina Basso Tolomeo in the theatre and on records often seems a weak, rather effeminate creature, mean-spirited because he is insecure and (at least politically) impotent.  This could hardly be less true of this performance, in which the role is sung with evident relish by Italian mezzo-soprano Romina Basso.  Listening to this performance, it is possible to think that Cesare was evenly-matched by Tolomeo.  Dramatically, Ms. Basso’s Tolomeo is a firebrand, tasting every spiteful word of his arias and dripping with venom and deliciously nasty irony in his recitatives.  Despite being sung by a beautiful woman, there is nothing effeminate about this Tolomeo.  The usually awkward ‘L’empio, sleale, indegno’ throbs with anger and thwarted ambition in Ms. Basso’s performance.  Immediately striking is the dark timbre of Ms. Basso’s voice, smooth and contralto-like.  Even more astounding is Ms. Basso’s dizzying coloratura technique, encompassing every vocal device in Tolomeo’s music with vigor that seems almost superhuman.  So compelling is Ms. Basso’s performance that she inspires the thought that, as with Monteverdi’s Nerone, it would be fascinating for the bad guy to win for a change.  Ms. Basso’s performance truly must be heard to be believed.  Händel can have expected no singing better than this, and Ms. Basso’s Tolomeo is, in a word, definitive.

No stranger to records, Giulio Cesare is nonetheless another of those truly great operas that has awaited a thoroughly satisfying recording.  Disappointment is perhaps intensified in the case of this recording because it so narrowly misses the bull’s-eye.  With typically thoughtful presentation and just enough sonic reverberation to give pleasant ‘bloom’ to voices and instruments, MDG have produced a Giulio Cesare that impressively complements the other Händel recordings in their catalogue.  None of their singers is inadequate, and they offer in Kristina Hammarström a Cesare who makes a strong argument for the supremacy of female singers in the role.  In the performances of Mary-Ellen Nesi and Romina Basso, this recording exhibits Händel singing of a quality that is rare even in this era of historically-informed practices.  Scholarship is very important, not least to the understanding of the contexts in which operas of Händel’s time were composed, but the finest singers know that opera of any era is, at its core, about singing.  However fine it is as a whole, a Giulio Cesare does not rise or fall on the performances of a Sesto or Tolomeo, but what singing there is to be heard in this recording!