Giulio Cesare in Egitto
~HWV 17~

DG/Archiv CD 474 210-2
3 CDs
full price
Recorded live in 2002.
Released in 2003.

Giulio Cesare: Marijana Mijanović, mezzo-soprano
Cleopatra: Magdalena Kožená, soprano
Sesto: Anne Sofie von Otter
Cornelia: Charlotte Hellekant, mezzo-soprano
Tolomeo: Bejun Mehta, countertenor
Achilla: Alan Ewing, bass
Nireno: Pascal Bertin
Curio: Jean-Michael Ankaoua

Orchestre et Choeurs des Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble (on period instruments)
Conductor: Marc Minkowski




Habent sua fata libelli1 – this must be true for recordings as much as for books, otherwise one may wonder how Minkowski could succeed to assemble such a cast of distinguished operatic stars just to lead them astray, or better let them free to produce a non-descript, mediocre and dramatically insensitive Giulio Cesare. While making substantial efforts to polish his conducting from every questionable radicality – thus attaining the respectable status of a timeless hyperbaroque master that he and others may have constructed for Handel – he smoothes the tempi, adds pomp and panache whenever possible, designs spectacular cadenzas or elaborate da capos. Yet, in doing so, he looses grasp of the whole, so that most of his singers proceed along their individual paths of historically uninformed zest for effect, mannerism, and generic bathos.

The result is sometimes appalling, as in the case of Alan Ewing, whose Achilla falls within the boundaries of unintentional humour throughout, and sometimes puzzling. The singer that really annoyed me was Charlotte Hellekant as Cornelia – why can't she sing through a phrase properly? Her stuttered and vibrato-sozzled "Priva son" is really awful, yet the orchestral accompaniment and Minkowski's pacing is really nicely done (although it is strange that here, and elsewhere, you can't hear the flute very clearly). Hellekant is also poor in "Son nata a lagrimar", in which I think Minkowski ought to have kept the music flowing a little bit more freely. It gets bogged down, and, when mixed with Hellekant's talent for making sure every note is contrived and separated from Handel's musical line, it is a recipe for disaster! Mijanović is always just under the note and as if she isn't really sure about what she is doing, an irresolute Cesare if any. Although her lower register is pleasant and she does various things acceptably, her "Alma del gran Pompeo" is very poorly sung, her “Va tacito” turns blurred, heading nowhere, in the da capo, and her “Empio dirò tu sei” appears marred by scarce fluency in Italian. Unfortunately, also von Otter’s once glorious mezzo colour sounds worn-out and utterly improbable for Sesto, which spoils the dramatic relevance of the character.

Though arguably miscast as Cleopatra, high mezzo Magdalena Kožená is up to her usual high standards and gets the best of it in the grand final sequence “Se pietà”, “Piangerò la sorte ria” and “Da tempeste”; it’s only a pity that Cleopatra's virtuosic, if a bit light-hearted, aria "Tu la mia stella sei" in Act I was left out unaware from this quasi-complete live recording. As Tolomeo, Bejun Mehta deserves an honourable mention, too: both his arie di sdegno “L’empio, sleale” and “Sì, spietata” are paragons of acrobatic coloratura at breath-taking tempo.

All in all, it looks like as if Minkowski has suffered from unfair criticism to his previous Handel recordings, and that he has consequently taken a reactionary course that has lead him, at best, to become a Hogwood clone. No, thanks; enough of that. Give us back the old unreasonable, whimsical, energetic French maestro we used to appreciate (or maybe the opposite – at least one could not feel neutral about this work). In any case, we ought to have experienced a distinct performer’s personality, not just another glossy beefcake for the latest Archiv marketing line.

1 Roughly translates as ‘Books have their fate’ (Ed.)

© Carlo Vitali - September 2003

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