Handel: Giulio Cesare

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Astrée Auvidis
WORKS: Giulio Cesare
PERFORMER: James Bowman, Lynne Dawson, Guillemette Laurens, Eirian James, Dominique Visse; La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy/Jean-Claude Malgoire
CATALOGUE NO: E 8558 DDD
Giulio Cesare proved by far the most popular of Handel’s operas, both originally and in modern revivals. Its straightforward plot and all-star original cast drew from Handel exceptional depth and subtlety in musical characterisation and lavish orchestral colours; Cleopatra’s seductive stage orchestra – harp, theorbo and viola da gamba with muted accompaniment from the pit – is unique.

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René Jacobs set the standard in 1991 (on Harmonia Mundi). By comparison, this is milder, more pensive. Bowman is superbly flexible – he seems to become ever more fluent over the years – yet less powerful and imperious than Jennifer Larmore, the earlier . Visse is thrillingly vicious as Tolomeo, the murderer and rapist, while the widowed Cornelia (Laurens) retains an expressive passion despite the weight of tragedy overwhelming her. Dawson, a provocative Cleopatra, isn’t always given her head: her final aria, da tempeste, is restrained by Malgoire’s sober tempo.

The recording balance veils some artful orchestral detail. But the quasi-stage acoustic and sense of space add dramatic realism to the recitative, which has been judiciously cut to allow the inclusion of all the arias within the three discs.

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This is a worthy addition to several versions already available on disc – though a dozen or more Handel operas still await their first recordings. George Pratt