Act I Giulio Cesare in Egitto
By Jennifer Larmore
Well, this is the big one, isn’t it? Julius Caesar in Egypt, but universally referred to as Cesare by we Baroque and rollers, is Handel’s most popular opera, then and now. It’s generally considered to be his greatest, too. It’s also his longest at around four hours. But trust me; the time will fly because you’ll be having fun. A truckload of it, in fact.
Our boy brought both his commercial and artistic A games and the result is breath-taking. The principals have an incredible eight, count ‘em, arias each. The Chrysander Edition lists twenty-nine arias in total, plus arioso numbers, and every single one is an absolute barnstorming banger. The orchestration meets new heights, too. Handel assembled his biggest ever orchestra (by the standards of Baroque norms, of course) and the resulting tuttis are suitably massive. Listen out for the hunting horns and trumpet obligato, newbies. To die for.
You’ll rarely find a tenor on any of the recordings but that’s about the only voice not represented. Here, too, Handel went for broke with his largest cast, featuring sopranos, mezzos, countertenors, a bass or baritone and enhanced chorus.
And so to the aria. It’s Cesare’s second Act I turn and It’s full of drama and menace, most effectively expressed by the continuo group (more like a continuo battalion actually) thundering away under the upper strings. It sounds like C minor (but I haven’t checked so don’t hold me to it) which is a great key; full of dread and impending doom.
There have been a lot of great singers tackling the role over the years, some sopranos too, although Cesare is generally a mezzo’s role (yay!) and even the occasional countertenor.
Today, I’ve picked Jennifer Larmore from Rene Jacobs’s award-winning recording. She’s a natural mezzo but in recent years has tackled some dramatic soprano roles. From America, the deep south as well, she joins her compatriot the late, truly great, Alan Curtis, in destroying my once firmly held contention that the Yanks are uncouth barbarians who shouldn’t be allowed to perform Barqoue opera. For me, Larmore’s greatest strength is as a vocal dramatist. She’s a really great musical actress and commits to character always and entirely. As you will hear.
The recording is typical of Jacobs’s maverick approach. There are a lot of additions and tinkering with the score. As always with him, based on very dubious claims to authenticity and Handel’s intentions. And, again as always, he just can’t help himself; writing in his own continuo lines. Nevertheless, it’s a cracking Cesare, as you would expect from the man who has, arguably, the best feel for drama amongst his Baroque contemporaries. It sounds enjoyably bloody huge, as well. Don’t be selfish and keep the good times to yourself; crank it up and treat your neighbours. You really need this recording.
Obviously, you always need Alan Curtis, and his 2011 recording with Marie-Nicole Lemieux is typically scrupulous in presenting, as near as is humanly possible, exactly what Handel wrote. I do like Lemieux very much but I must reluctantly accept she sounds just too beautiful and perfect for this particular aria. The recording as a whole, however, is wonderful. You also get the brilliant Romina Basso as Cornelia and Karina Gauvin as Cleopatra. Phew! Some trio, eh?
Basso also appears on George Petrou’s recording as Tolomeo and she is unnervingly psychotic. Normally the role is a countertenor and instead of the camp, petulant brat so many descend to, Basso loads up the slithering, amoral depravity and is sensational. So yeah; you need this one too.
Just one final mention, from the crowded field; Glyndebourne’s production starring Sarah Connolly as Cesare and an absolutely knock-out Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra in her Glyndebourne debut, is available on DVD. You really need this as well. No, seriously. Start to finish, it’s the best Cesare you can get on DVD. Ignore the haters, of which there are some. If one wishes to be snide, you could call it Carry on Giulio or Cesare in Bollywood – it’s David McVicar innit? – but I do not lie; you will be thanking me on bended knees if you shell out for it. Go for it; decent opera collections sadly do not themselves build.