24 December 2012

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel—GIULIO CESARE (M. N. Lemieux, K. Gauvin, R. Basso, E. Baráth, F. Mineccia; Naïve OP 30536)

Georg Friedrich Händel: GIULIO CESARE - Alan Curtis, Naïve OP 30536

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17—M.-N. Lemieux (Giulio Cesare), K. Gauvin (Cleopatra), R. Basso (Cornelia), E. Baráth (Sesto), F. Mineccia (Tolomeo), J. Weisser (Achilla), M. Storti (Nireno), G. Buratto (Curio); Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis [recorded in Lonigo, Italy, during November 2011; Naïve OP 30536]

It was not so long ago that a curious listener who wished to hear a recording of Händel’s Giulio Cesare with all roles sung in their original registers, as Händel intended when composing the opera, could but dream.  The earliest modern performances—and it is worth noting that, during the first decades of the Twentieth Century, productions of the opera were conducted by such acclaimed conductors (and Wagnerians) as Böhm, von Karajan, and Knappertsbusch—and recordings of Giulio Cesare—including a German radio production with the great Hans Hotter in the title role and the famously pioneering New York City Opera recording that helped to make Beverly Sills an American sensation—employed stringently-cut, bowdlerized editions of Händel’s score that transposed roles to different vocal registers and took considerable liberties with da capo repeats, rhythms, and tempi.  With the advent of the historically-informed performance practice movement came a revitalization of interest in hearing vocal music sung in the closest possible approximations of how it would have been performed when new, and with this came a wave of opera recordings with all roles sung at their original pitches.  Not surprisingly considering its popularity among both Händel’s oeuvre and Eighteenth Century opera in general, Giulio Cesare was among the first scores to receive a recorded outing with increased fidelity to its composer’s intentions.  Like several of the greatest operas in the standard repertory, Giulio Cesare cannot be said to exist in a single, definitive edition, but the complete recordings, abridged performances, and excerpts included on recital discs during the past thirty years have allowed the modern listener to at least come nearer to enjoying Giulio Cesare as it might have been performed when it was premiered in London in 1724.

The advocacy of American-born conductor Alan Curtis for the operas of Händel has been a mixed blessing.  To his credit are recorded documents of some of the current generation’s finest singers in Händel roles that inspire them to great performances, not least Joyce DiDonato in the title roles of Alcina and Radamisto.  This is offset, at least in part, by an inconsistency of approach that finds Maestro Curtis bold and imaginative in one moment and dull and mannered in another.  It must be admitted that, even by standards influenced by Wagner and Richard Strauss, Giulio Cesare is a long opera, and a firm hand wielding the baton is required if it is not to seem bloated, especially in extended passages of secco recitative.  In that regard, this recording cannot be considered a complete success, for there are moments in which tension and dramatic momentum are allowed to droop, causing the performance to hang fire and threaten to bore.  Fortunately, these moments do not occur in the most important scenes of the opera, but there is a sense of Maestro Curtis having been most fully engaged only in the most celebrated or dramatically crucial scenes.

A considerable virtue of Maestro Curtis’s scholarship is his founding of Il Complesso Barocco, a period instrument ensemble whose musical integrity has grown more impressive with each recording.  Giulio Cesare makes considerable demands upon an orchestra, and Il Complesso Barocco meet those demands with verve and virtuosity to spare.  The continuo ensemble is varied and effective, maintaining sufficient dramatic contrast in recitative without crossing over into the fussiness familiar from many recent performances of Baroque repertory.  The score’s few choral contributions are sung by the principal singers.  This is historically appropriate, of course, but in this case there is slightly too great a sense of soloists singing in coro: the choral passages, though impeccably delivered, sound more like chorales from Bach Cantatas than choruses of massed citizens along the Nile.  Unlike some of Maestro Curtis’s recordings, which have been negatively impacted by their recording venues, this performance benefits from a natural acoustic that is especially kind to woodwinds and grants to the upper voices a particular immediacy.

Few performances of Giulio Cesare are as fortuitously cast with low male voices as is this recording.  The praetor Curio is sung by Italian bass Gianluca Buratto, a valuable artist whose repertory ranges from Monteverdi to Massenet.  As Curio, Mr. Buratto seizes every opportunity to impress by combining the resonance and robust timbre of his voice with a pointed delivery of the text.  Achilla is sung by Norwegian baritone Johannes Weisser, a very promising young singer already familiar to period practice aficionados as the title philanderer in René Jacobs’s recording (and DVD production) of Don Giovanni.  In many ways, Achilla is an ancestor of Don Giovanni, though the charm that the latter should possess is absent in the former.  Achilla was first performed by Giuseppe Maria Boschi, perhaps the most famous bass of the first half of the Eighteenth Century.  Careful examination of the tessiture of the roles that he created suggests that Boschi would today be considered a baritone, so the casting of Mr. Weisser is a nod to historical correctness.  It is also a considerable gain in dramatic verisimilitude: possessing a very fine voice of dark color, Mr. Weisser sings imposingly, putting considerable bite into his recitatives and delivering his arias with stinging precision.  Mr. Weisser’s performance suggests that Achilla is a secondary role only when sung by second-rate singers.

While stating that ‘a really good countertenor appeals’ to him, Maestro Curtis argued in a 2004 interview that he strives to ‘do what Händel did: if he didn’t have a good castrato or contralto, then he would use a falsettist, but only if he had to.’  In the first performance of Giulio Cesare, Tolomeo was sung by the alto castrato Gaetano Berenstadt, who also created the title role in Flavio and Adelberto in Ottone for Händel.  Whether or not a good contralto might have been found to sing Tolomeo, the young Italian artist Filippo Mineccia is surely one of the really good countertenors who appeal to Maestro Curtis.  Tolomeo is a nasty piece of work, as vile as any character in opera, but villainy is most convincing—and treacherous—when beguilingly enacted.  Mr. Mineccia’s performance never allows any doubt about Tolomeo’s motives, but lechery has rarely been more entrancing or unfailingly musical.  Mr. Mineccia’s supple, innately attractive voice practically slithers through his recitatives, and he delivers a dazzling account of ‘L’empio, sleale, indegno,’ Tolomeo’s bravura aria in Act One.  Musically, Mr. Mineccia’s performance is impressively accurate and stylish: dramatically, he creates a character that one definitely would not want to encounter in an alley on a dark night in Egypt.

In the bad old days of tessitura realignment, the role of Nireno—Cleopatra’s eunuch servant—was often assigned to baritones or basses, an unintentional touch of comedy.  Nireno, too, was originated by an alto castrato and is now often sung by a countertenor.  The role is sung in this performance by a female singer, however; the dynamic Italian contralto Milena Storti.  Nireno admittedly does not provide a singer with a lot of meat into which to sink the teeth, but Ms. Storti—revealing a characterful, strong voice—sings appealingly, demanding that the listener take note of her every appearance.

Sesto presents special challenges to any production of Giulio Cesare, whether for the stage or for records.  It is a male role composed for a relatively high voice, as was Baroque custom, but Sesto is a young man, indeed only a teenager.  The castrati with whom Händel and his contemporaries worked were grown men, after all, some of them rather corpulent and decidedly ill-suited to portraying teenaged boys.  Perhaps also taking into account the tradition in British theatre since Elizabethan times of casting female artists as young men and boys, Händel composed Sesto for Margherita Durastanti, a singer with whom the composer enjoyed a long-standing collaboration and whose tessitura underwent a gradual downward shift from soprano to mezzo-soprano.  Despite unflattering descriptions of her physical appearance and figure, Durastanti was widely acclaimed as a fine singing actress, and Händel composed both male and female roles for her.  Among these, Sesto is perhaps something of an anomaly, musically: dramatically, it is precisely the sort of prevaricating, fluid role at which Durastanti apparently excelled.  The role is sung in this performance by young Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth, winner of the 2011 Cesti Competition.  Born in 1985, Ms. Baráth sounds slightly ‘green’ in this performance, but her technical command of Händel’s difficult music is apparent.  Obvious, too, is her commitment to her craft and to drawing musical inspiration from the text.  Sesto’s famous aria ‘Svegliatevi nel core’ is sung with passion and intriguing ornamentation of the da capo, and the gorgeous ‘L’aure che spira’ lacks nothing in terms of poise and ardor.  What is lacking is an audible sense of the androgynous nature of Sesto: one does not hear in Ms. Baráth’s performance the essence of a boy thrust into inconceivable circumstances but nonetheless not quite a man.  Ms. Baráth’s voice is very feminine, and despite being very lovely as singing per se her performance is not altogether effective.  To her credit, Ms. Baráth is at her best in ‘Cara speme, questo core’ and ‘Son nata a lagrimar,’ the pieces in which Sesto’s music is at its most sublime.

For a generation of opera lovers, Beverly Sills made Cleopatra the center of attention in any performance or recording of Giulio Cesare, and it might be argued that, even now, a singer like Cecilia Bartoli can tip the balance away from the title role.  The strong ensemble of this recording manages to avoid the focus being unduly centered for too long on one singer, but Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin—one of the most renowned Händel singers of the current generation—seeks to remind the listener that, while Caesar was a military power unto himself and a master statesman, Cleopatra was a genuine ‘star.’  Listening to the music that he composed for her reveals that Händel understood this, and Ms. Gauvin’s performance leaves no doubt that she knows it, too, but the performance does not always prove as glorious as the promise.  Extraordinary musicality and a grasp of the Händel idiom that seems as natural as breathing are hallmarks of Ms. Gauvin’s singing, but here the voice sounds darker and slightly less malleable than in previous recordings.  Largely absent in the context of this recording is complete mastery of the role—not just the music—of Cleopatra.  Cleopatra is a dichotomous figure, displaying the sort of contrasting public and private personas encountered in Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra.  If this implies a certain duplicity, it must be remembered that Cleopatra is a woman in a very dangerous man’s world of Roman conquerors and a pernicious brother who wishes to usurp her power.  Typically, a Cleopatra, even if very accomplished at performing the music, will fully encompass only one aspect of Cleopatra’s complicated dramatic presence, proving either a convincing lover or a practiced politician.  It is only very rarely that a singer manages to convey both sides of Cleopatra with equal conviction.  Beverly Sills did so with graceful lyricism combined with arresting command of coloratura (along with interpolations and embellishments that would likely have dismayed Händel).  In that her performance is beautifully proportioned within the boundaries of period-appropriate good taste, Ms. Gauvin might be said to have improved even upon what Sills achieved as Cleopatra.  Considered in the context of vocalism, this is an accomplished piece of singing.  The playful, scheming Cleopatra—expressed in her arias ‘Non disperar, chi sa,’ ‘Tu la mia stella sei,’ and ‘V’adoro pupille’—inspires Ms. Gauvin to fine displays of virtuosity.  Ms. Gauvin dazzles with coloratura of brilliance and precision but avoids the kind of mad ornamentation that mars too many performances of Händel’s operas.  In Cleopatra’s ‘pathetic’ arias, especially ‘Piangerò la sorte mia,’ Ms. Gauvin’s voice is typically poised, but she mostly fails to reach the greatest depths of emotion.  Singing Händel, particularly Cleopatra, requires much more than a beautiful voice, which Ms. Gauvin certainly possesses, and in this performance her control over the voice seems imperfect.  Arguably, Cleopatra is Händel’s most fully-developed, intriguing operatic character, and Ms. Gauvin might reasonably have been expected to deliver the most fully-developed, intriguing performance of the role yet recorded.  Neither the condition of the voice nor the dramatic use to which it is put warrants that accolade, but it is nonetheless a performance of distinction.  Ms. Gauvin is a performer of the calibre who disappoints by falling short of her own irreproachable standards.

In the same way that Azucena proves the most compelling character in many performances of Il Trovatore, Cornelia often emerges as the ‘heart’ of a production of Giulio Cesare.  Unthinkably wronged within minutes of the opening curtain by Tolomeo’s treacherous engineering of her husband’s murder, Cornelia’s plight is expressed with crushing gravity and pathos in her first aria, ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto,’ one of those time-stopping pieces for which Händel had such an easy faculty.  Composed for the English singer Anastasia Robinson, Cornelia pursues her vengeance dolorously, battling unwelcome amorous advances and only relishing her ultimate victory in productions that include the scene in which her son Sesto kills Tolomeo on stage.  In this recording, Cornelia receives a performance from Italian mezzo-soprano Romina Basso that is worthy of a Roman consul’s daughter described by Plutarch as one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and dutiful women of her age.  Possessing a voice that is dark and imposing without being heavy or unwieldy, Ms. Basso sings with unflappable conviction and virtuosity, bringing complete tonal steadiness and heart-stopping but stylish intensity to ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto.’  The bite of Ms. Basso’s native Italian in secco recitative is wonderfully gripping, giving Cornelia a sharper dramatic profile than she attains in many performances.  Though she is often the emotional center of Giulio Cesare, Cornelia can seem a static character, but Ms. Basso brings uncommon depth and development to her performance.  There is an audible shift from wronged widow to exasperated object of unrequited desires and frightened mother in Ms. Basso’s performance, employing a dramatic sensibility that surely reveals how Händel may have intended his operas to be performed.  Ms. Basso’s performance completely frees Händel’s music for Cornelia, even secco recitative, from charges of boredom.  Ms. Basso joins Ms. Baráth for a very beautiful account of their duet, ‘Son nata a lagrimar,’ and she brings to each of Cornelia’s arias precisely the correct combination of technique, fire, and tasteful ornamentation.  Ms. Basso also sang Tolomeo on the studio recording of Giulio Cesare conducted by George Petrou, and it is indicative of her artistic integrity and versatility that the same voice can so effectively breathe life into two characters that are so different.

The title role in Giulio Cesare was first sung by Senesino, one of the most renowned castrati of the Eighteenth Century, and ironically it is often the eponymous Roman conqueror himself who disappoints in modern performances of Händel’s opera.  Taking into account its considerable demands and the particular musical elements that were tailored to Senesino’s legendary vocal prowess, Cesare is one of the most difficult roles in the repertory to cast.  Few countertenors can muster the power in the lower register and the command of fiorature in all parts of the voice required by Cesare’s music, but few mezzo-sopranos are able to summon and convincingly maintain the swaggering masculinity required for Cesare to be a credible warrior and ladies’ man.  Vocally, Canadian mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux proves one of the most successful performers of Cesare on records, building upon the revelatory performance by Jennifer Larmore on René Jacobs’s harmonia mundi recording.  From the character’s first entrance, Händel lines Cesare’s vocal path with hurdles, most of which Ms. Lemieux clears with panache.  A noble but aggressive presence is established with ‘Empio, dirò, tu sei’ and maintained throughout the opera, the tone at once attractive and powerful as the voice of such a man should be.  Ms. Lemieux occasionally overdoes the histrionics, especially in plunging into her baritonal chest register, but her singing throughout the performance is informed by strong musical instincts.  Her command of Händel’s tricky coloratura is masterful, as is the concentration that she brings to secco recitative.  Responding to Ms. Gauvin’s Cleopatra, though, Ms. Lemieux does not explore all of the dramatic possibilities of Cesare, which ideally lead to creating a figure as adept at strategizing on the battlefield as in the boudoir.  Her singing of ‘Aure, deh, per pietà’ is the zenith of her performance, the voice luxuriating in Händel’s melodic inspiration, but there is a disconcerting sameness to Ms. Lemieux’s singing of Cesare’s wonderfully varied arias.  Still, it is a performance that leaves little to be desired from a musical perspective.  It is impossible to know how Senesino’s voice sounded in any of the roles composed for him by Händel, but Ms. Lemieux’s performance confirms that with Cesare Händel created one of the earliest great roles in the alto range.

It is illustrative of the difficulty of making an opera ‘work’ on a recording that Alan Curtis, with what seems an ideal cast, ultimately cannot boast of having recorded an ideal Giulio Cesare.  This recording is a potent reminder of one of the greatest qualities of opera, however: an honorable effort that misses its mark can be extremely enjoyable.  Heard as a performance of Händel’s superb music, this Giulio Cesare is delightful, but a Giulio Cesare in which Cornelia is both the emotional and dramatic core of the performance is not quite right.

Mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Cesare) [Photo by Denis Rouvre]