COMPOSERS: George Frideric Handel
LABELS: Virgin Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Handel Giulio Cesare
WORKS: Giulio Cesare
PERFORMER: Lawrence Zazzo, Natalie Dessay, Isabel Leonard, Varduhi Abrahamyan, Christophe Dumaux, Nathan Berg, Dominique Visse, Aimery Lefèvre; Choeur de l’Opéra national de Paris; Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm; dir. Laurent Pelly
CATALOGUE NO: 0709399
This 2011 visualisation of Handel’s opera seria about the triumph of Julius Caesar in Egypt and the triumph of Cleopatra in Caesar’s affections is more concept-based than is usual in director Laurent Pelly’s work. In Chantal Thomas’s fussy sets, we’re presented with the storeroom of the Cairo Museum, where a statue of Caesar arrives by lift to be unwrapped by the staff; it is welcomed by a line of singing busts of ancient Romans. Soon Handel’s original characters come alive, interacting with the local museum-workers while carrying on with their own political and amorous intrigues. If one quickly feels that none of this is strictly necessary – why not just leave them in ancient Egypt to get on with it? – there’s no denying that the result is finely managed and skilfully delivered by a strong team of singing actors.
None more so than Natalie Dessay’s Cleopatra, maybe past her first flush of vocal youth but still looking glamorous and singing with considerable technical and expressive command. Lawrence Zazzo’s Caesar matches her, even if a twitchy physical quality ascribed to him (is this a reference to Caesar’s supposed epilepsy?) becomes intrusive. Christophe Dumaux provides Caesar’s antitype as an effete, conniving Tolomeo, Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Cornelia is affecting in her emotional truth and Isabel Leonard’s boyish Sesto is presented with considerable dynamism. Many good things, then, not least in Emmanuelle Haïm’s conducting, which provides expertise if not the vivid character William Christie supplies on David McVicar’s version for Glyndebourne – which remains the top recommendation.