George Frideric Handel
Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17
Media Review / Listening Diary 2013-03-09
2014-11-08 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-12 — Brushed up for better readability
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759): Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17
naïve OP 30536 (3 CD, stereo); ℗ 2011 / © 2012
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Handel in my Library
George Frideric Handel (a.k.a. Georg Friedrich Händel, 1685 – 1759) is severely underrepresented in my CD library (around 20 hours of music, compared to almost 300 for Bach). That’s probably because I’m still scared of running into boring performances. I’m thinking of oratorios such as the Judas Maccabäus or the Messiah in my (archived) LP collection. That’s fear for no good reason: these old recordings are all in German and mostly directed by Karl Richter, hence “utterly non-HIP”. As my daughter recently mentioned “But you have almost no Handel!”, I started looking around.
The Performers in this Recording
- Marie-Nicole Lemieux — contralto, Giulio Cesare
- Karina Gauvin — soprano, Cleopatra
- Romina Basso — contralto, Cornelia
- Emöke Baráth — soprano, Sesto
- Filippo Mineccia — countertenor, Tolomeo
- Johannes Weisser — baritone, Achilla
- Milena Storti — contralto, Nireno
- Gianluca Buratto — bass, Curio
About the Composition
What about the composition? Well, this is baroque opera, and I’m not sure whether occasional listeners of baroque music will be entirely happy with this audio recording. Overall, it is a relatively monotonous sequence of arias (typically A-B-A form) or ariosi (less formal). Each of these is preceded by a recitativo or a recitativo accompagnato. In this composition, the term “aria” also includes for duets, trios, quartets, even quintets:
- There are 33 recitativi (ignoring the splitting into scenes), four recitativi accompagnati. Out of these, 13 are for a single singer, the rest are duets, trios, quartets, and quintets.
- There are 30 arie, one of which is a duet.
- There are two short choral pieces (1’30” and 2’40”). Here, the 8 soloists also form the choir.
- Finally, there are 5 sinfonie, i.e., orchestral pieces (0’30” up to 2’50”).
What I meant to say with the above remark: without the visual (and without having seen the opera on stage), this may “lack entertainment value” for people who are not really “into” baroque music. Plus, there is very little (audible) action on the stage. Also, the opera does have very nice arias — but (to me) it lacks the virtuosic splendor that we find in so many other baroque operas of that time. It also (with one or two exceptions, maybe, primarily the aria “Piangero la sorte mia”) does not include “absolute hits”, as found in other operas by Handel, or in his oratorios. Finally, it’s 3 hours 40 minutes in this performance, so not something one would listen through quickly.
About the recording: Opera recordings are difficult in general. If it’s a live stage recording, one needs to cope with the stage noises and moving singers, good sound balance is tricky, if not impossible to achieve. With video recordings, this is tolerable, because we split our senses between the visual and the auditive channels. But with CD recordings we typically have higher expectations: people might consider stage noise a distraction, if not a disturbance. The same holds true for limitations in the sound balance. This particular recording (2011 in Lonigo, a little town between Vicenza and Verona, Italy) is not made on stage (the only audible “actions” are the last breaths when somebody dies), so no distractions from that side.
A concert-like setting has the advantage that the audio balance is easier to achieve. A small baroque orchestra can fare well against/with solo voices and even a choir. Here, the size of the string section is 4+4, 2, 2, 1, the orchestra consists of close to 30 instrumentalists, including the continuo.
For most parts, this recording is indeed well-balanced. I only have reservations with a few tracks, such as scene 8 in act I, an aria with (small) continuo accompaniment. Here, the continuo is so much in the background that it sounds like back-stage, behind the scenes — for no good reason. Especially as this is a particularly nice aria, and the singer (Emöke Baráth) has no problem in making her nice voice heard! In general, the focus in this recording is with the voices rather than with the orchestra (or the continuo).
This brings me to my final remarks, about the interpretation. Even though I have nothing to compare this with, I think that overall, this is a very good interpretation.
As mentioned, the recording focuses on the voices — and these are indeed excellent, especially (of course) the two protagonists. Marie-Nicole Lemieux lives here role as Cesare. She is an excellent actress with a well-balanced, dramatic voice. A very nice detail: in the aria “Non è sì vago e bello” (scene 7 in Act I), there is a very short cadenza; many singers would abuse that to excel in vocal brilliance and (often hollow) virtuosity. But here, that cadenza is very short (only about 5 seconds), but unusual in its figurative content: a cadenza that matches Handel’s qualities as one of the best melodic composers ever.
I equally like the voice of the other protagonist, Karina Gauvin, in the role of Cleopatra. It is flexible, equally balanced, virtuosic, mostly lyrical, but also dramatic, where required. Also here I don’t hear unnecessary dwelling in hollow virtuosity. Also this role features a (longer) cadenza with similar qualities to the one just mentioned, in the aria “Tutto può donna vezzosa” in the same scene.
Overall, the entire vocal ensemble is well-balanced, and I could not point to any singer not matching the high standards in this recording. One minor point: I don’t mean to be discriminative, but I find Romina Basso‘s heavy guttural “r” (unusual in the Italian language) a bit hard, if not sometimes almost painful to listen to. But that may be a matter of taste, and her voice otherwise is very good & nice. I also particularly like Filippo Mineccia‘s countertenor voice, and Johannes Weisser‘s baritone, along with all other vocalists.
As mentioned, there are only two short choir pieces in this opera. Therefore, it does not make sense to bring in an entire choir, especially as the 8 voices in this ensemble make up for a very good chorus. Naturally, it does not feature an entirely homogeneous choir sound, though. I could not say anything negative about the instrumentalists and the direction in this recording: they are not in the focus, the articulation, the sound, the ornamentation, the tempo selection, etc. — all leave very little, if anything to wish for.
I don’t regret this purchase at all; I recommend it even though it’s a type of recording that one doesn’t tend to listen very frequently.