Hopping from label to label, Alan Curtis and his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco have managed to notch up an arsenal of Handel opera recordings, alternating between the composer’s more familiar works – Ariodante, Alcina and Rodelinda – and lesser-known gems such as Floridante and Ezio. Now the group has tackled what is arguably Handel’s greatest stage work, Giulio Cesare in Egitto. The cast, even by Curtis’s luxurious standards, is remarkable. Marie- Nicole Lemieux’s billowing, fruity contralto is gripping in the title role, whether she’s singing up a storm of coloratura (her Empio, diró is fabulously ferocious) or basking in the reverential stillness of Alma del gran Pompeo, delivered not only with exceptional breath control and tonal beauty, but with moving sincerity. Indeed, that sense of sincerity underpins every performance in this recording.
Those who are looking for a traditional production of one of Handel's greatest operas are advised to stay clear of this release. Director Herbert Wernicke, who also designed the sets and the costumes, has turned Giulio Cesare into archaeological fantasy: the entire opera takes places on top of a giant replica of the Rosetta Stone, and the final chorus is sung by camera-clicking tourists. (Shades of Philip Glass's Akhnaten!) Achilles, Ptolemy's general, is dressed like Indiana Jones's less svelte brother, and throughout the course of the production we see, at different times, dresses and uniforms that could have been worn in the century just past, powdered wigs that could have been worn in the 1700s, and a man (fortunately silent!) in a crocodile costume, who apparently represents the spirit of Egypt…Raymond Tuttle
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…
The emotional content, lyricism and direct appeal of Gavin Bryars’s music are unique, reflecting a contemporary composer’s absorption and transformation of several centuries of musical craftsmanship in order to reflect his, and our, own epoch. Originally written for harpsichord, After Handel’s Vesper is a strong illustration of Bryars’s post-minimal interests in early music repertoire. Ramble on Cortona, derived from 13th-century music, makes expressive use of the piano’s resonant qualities, while in the highly-coloured, almost impressionistic The Solway Canal, landscapes pass by as if in a dream.