Handel: Giulio Cesare
Handel’s Giulio Cesare has lately morphed from rarity to core repertoire, embraced by conductors and directors as a long-lost relative. It is a happy return for an unfairly forgotten, psychologically perceptive Baroque opera. But, as the recording’s conductor Alan Curtis notes, today’s interpretations are based on performance conventions that have accrued in recent years, some of them at odds with Handel’s markings. Add to this a gradual shift of dramaturgical emphasis and it seems that we scarcely know this reclaimed opera: if all ears were once on the Egyptian seductress Cleopatra, now they are focused on the grieving Roman widow, Cornelia. The sole constant seems to be that no one knows how seriously to take the infatuated title character, or his sadistic enemy, Tolomeo.
Curtis presents a Giulio Cesare that is as volatile and ambiguous as Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Il Complesso Barocco’s articulation is vigorous and incisive – bordering on the ugly when ugly sentiments are being expressed, and muskily skittish when accompanying Karina Gauvin’s agile Cleopatra. Marie-Nicole Lemieux plays Cesare as a man made foolish by love; her ample, burnished tone in ‘Non è si vago e bello’ is a hair’s breadth from high camp. Romino Basso’s grave Cornelia and Emöke Baráth’s ardent Sesto carry the moral authority. Their arias are vividly characterised, while Filippo Mineccia’s Tolomeo is treated with welcome seriousness: his anguish is sincere, his fury dangerous. Strong support from Milena Storti, Gianluca Buratto and Johannes Weisser (as Nireno, Curio and Achilla) adds to the persuasiveness of Curtis’s reading. This is not the definitive Giulio Cesare – but it does advance the debate around a much loved, little understood masterpiece.