Giulio Cesare (highlights)
~ HWV 17 ~

Warner Classics/Apex 2564 62018-2
1 CD
budget price
Recorded in 1988.
First released in 1988.
First reissue in 1996.
Second reissue in 2005.

  • Act I
    • Overture
    • Viva, viva (chorus)
    • Presti omai (Cesare)
    • Priva son d’ogni conforto (Cornelia)
    • Svegliatievi nel core (Sesto)
    • Cara speme (Sesto)
    • Va tacito (Cesare)
  • Act II
    • Cessa omai (Cornelia)
    • Se pieta (Cleopatra)
  • Act III
    • Sinfonia
    • Da tempeste (Cleopatra)
    • Sinfonia
    • Ritorni omai (chorus and Cleopatra)

Cesare: Paul Esswood
Cleopatra: Roberta Alexander
Cornelia: Marjana Lipovšek
Seste: Ann Murray
Cleopatra: Lucia Popp (Track 14)

Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Concentus Musicus Wien (on period instruments)
Director: Nikolaus Harnoncourt

CDs featuring extracts of operas usually serve one of two functions.  On the one hand, the record company has released a full version of an opera but puts out a selected sampling which might justifiably be called “highlights”, for those who don’t wish (or can’t afford) to purchase the complete version, for example, Erato’s recording of Teseo.  On the other hand, for economic or other reasons, a full version is not released in CD form; one example is the Australian Opera’s (now Opera Australia) 1994 Giulio Cesare;  a full version was released on video (now available in DVD format) but only a selection of arias made it to a single commercial CD release.  This approach probably also deserves the sobriquet “highlights”.  In both cases, one accepts that the selection was based on an overall consideration of how to best represent the singers, the playing and the dramatic thrust and flavour of the complete work.

This new re-issue seems to have been based more on the premise of “what we were able to salvage”, and the term “highlights” has only a tenuous claim to accuracy.  The fact that the Cleopatra in the concluding coro is not the same singer as the Cleopatra in her two arias strongly suggests that this has been cobbled together out of bits of different performances.  Any idea of a balanced representation of the overall work should be dispelled by a consideration of the arias chosen and the order of presentation.  Cesare, Cleopatra, Cornelia and Sesto do it is true get two relatively contrasting arias apiece, but they are not ones that best represent the overall drama;  Tolomeo does not appear at all.  As well as the overture, both sinfonias from Act III are included, which can only be considered arbitrary if not due to technical exigencies.

As far as the performances go, while Harnoncourt was in the forefront of historically-informed Handel performance, some aspects of this have not stood the test of time.  The tempi are generally far statelier than those to which we are now accustomed.  The orchestral playing is almost unbearably bright, indeed strident, although this might of course be due to the dynamics of the recording process.  Paul Esswood was one of the leading post-Deller exponents of modern baroque countertenor singing, and his production is careful and musicianly if a little fuzzy in the low notes and lacking attack in ‘Va tacito’.  Roberta Alexander’s Cleopatra is by turns moving and sprightly, but somewhat shrill.  Cornelia is sung by Marjana Lipovsek with warm tone, but is rather emotionally bland.  Mezzo-soprano Ann Murray, herself a latter day Cesare but younger here as Sesto, is less squally than in her recent recordings, and her ‘Cara speme’ is pleasing.

It is hard to imagine to whom this recording is likely to appeal;  if you are a Roberta Alexander fan, you can get a better bargain with Harnoncourt’s recording of Apollo e Dafne with Alexander and Hampson, along with the two arias of Cleopatra preserved here.  Given however the abundance of Giulio Cesare recordings available, although none of them are perfect, most have more to offer than this, which will surely only be sought out by completists.

© Sandra Bowdler - January 2006

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