Graun: Cesare e Cleopatra

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LABELS: Harmoni Mundi
WORKS: Cesare e Cleopatra
PERFORMER: Janet Williams, Iris Vermillion, Lynne Dawson, Robert Gambill; RIAS Chamber Choir, Concerto Köln/René Jacobs
Carl Heinrich Graun, younger contemporary and friend of Telemann, spent most of his working life in the service of Frederick the Great at his various residences in and around Berlin. Cesare e Cleopatra – for some reason the title is given back to front on the cover of this CD – though not Graun’s first opera for Berlin has a greater claim to fame, inasmuch as it inaugurated the Royal Berlin Opera House, the Lindenoper, in December 1742. The patience with which Frederick closely monitored the progress of the building is well documented and was such that Cesare e Cleopatra was performed in a building so far from complete that audiences had to stumble through building materials to reach their improvised bench seats. And warnings were posted all over the city that approaching the incompleted building with torches or anything which might start a fire would incur immediate arrest.


Cesare e Cleopatra is loosely based on Corneille’s La mort de Pompée but, like Handel’s Giulio Cesare, played in London 18 years earlier, places its emphasis on the love affair between Caesar and Cleopatra, rather than on Pompey’s death. Doubtless Frederick saw in Caesar’s military and political prowess an appealing image of himself, but that need not concern us overmuch in the context of an unfailingly engaging musical score in that newly developing, cosmopolitan idiom which we identify as the galant style. René Jacobs keeps the dramatic pace moving briskly with singing and playing of splendid vitality and rhythmic incisiveness. In an almost universally strong cast, Janet Williams’s Cleopatra and Lynne Dawson’s Cornelia stand out respectively for their technical athleticism and sympathetic warmth of expression. Nicholas Anderson