Handel: Cleopatra

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Handel
LABELS: Virgin
WORKS: Cleopatra
PERFORMER: Natalie Dessay (soprano); Le Concert d’Astrée/Emmanuelle Haïm
CATALOGUE NO: 907 8722

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Cleopatra, prima donna of Giulio Cesare in Egitto, is one of Handel’s most brilliant creations – ‘the equal of Shakespeare’s, and one of the most subtly drawn characters in opera’ in Winton Dean’s judgment. She’s the latest Handel assignment of Natalie Dessay, an artist of brilliant accomplishment and already considerable familiarity with the repertory.

This, though, is not the complete new Giulio Cesare that Dessay fans might have hoped for – especially as Emmanuelle Haïm, her conductor, is also an expert Handelian – but a kind of ‘portrait compilation’. Seven arias are inset amid recitatives and instrumental numbers, capped by the final duet ‘Caro! Bella’ (in which the excellently agile Caesar is the Italian mezzo Sonia Prina, of whom much more should have been heard).

In fact I found this potted Dessay Cleopatra disappointing not just because of its short-measure account of the work. Focus on the single character seems to highlight the below-par condition in which the soprano was caught, at least when measured against her past Handel recordings.

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In the opening ‘Tutto può donna vezzosa’ low notes and phrases are weakly articulated, the flirtatious charm only faintly asserted. Dessay’s sheer skilfulness comes across unscathed, not least in the later big outpourings of suffering; hers is, all the same, an oddly monochrome, even lustreless Cleopatra. Max Loppert