A live recording of Handel's finest opera, featuring a high-powered cast conducted by...
Andrew McGregor 2003
It's widely acknowledged that in the 1963 movie Cleopatra Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor smouldered far more effectively off-screen than on in a dull, sprawling, enervating epic. 'I only came to see the asp' was one critic's poisonous comment. They should have stuck with the opera, widely regarded as Handel's finest, and one of the great baroque dramas. Giulio Cesare presents its own major casting problems though, with almost all the lead roles lying in the same high two-and-a-bit-octave range, and you somehow have to decide between sopranos, mezzos, contraltos and counter-tenors. Get it right and this very human love story unfolds elegantly against a backdrop of war and treachery, human nobility and frailty. Get it wrong though, and the whole drama collapses; characters come and go undifferentiated without the visual cues of a full staging. But listening on CD also has its advantages; it's easier to believe in a contralto as Caesar or a mezzo as Sesto, when you can't see obviously female forms constrained by costume.
As Caesar, Marijana Mijanovics is impressive, with a full, flexible bottom-end to the range that puts plenty of counter-tenors to shame...she's able to knock out the more virtuosic arias with impressive fire. As Cleopatra, Magdalena Kozena is superb, with real beauty of tone and impressive ornamentation, never over-sentimentalising her romantic moments. Charlotte Hellekant as Cornelia is a very different mezzo, darker and warmer, perfect for the role of a woman mourning her murdered husband more-or-less from the off. Anne Sofie von Otter is a stunningly good choice as Sesto, a young nobleman who Handel wrote as either soprano or tenor, so to cast such an intelligent mezzo is an imaginative step. Bejun Mehta is the lone counter-tenor among the leads, and as Cleo's brother Tolomeo he's an effective contrast tonally, and almost as fleet and flexible as the best of the rest.
It's been 12 years since René Jacobs' highly regarded period instruments recording, and it's a surprisingly difficult act to follow...but for me, Minkowski does more than that: he leads, with his brisk and sometimes challengingly fast speeds. The outbursts of fury are more explosive, while he's prepared to indulge his soloists in their more reflective moments. It's a live recording made at concert performances, but the occasional untidiness is more than made up for by the atmosphere, the adrenaline, and the feeling that the performers really are living in the moment. It's dramatic, passionate, and theatrical - everything the movie version isn't. The only thing missing from the opera is the asp...
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