Handel’s Giulio Cesare was first performed in Braunschweig in 1725. The Caro Sassone would probably be happy to see that he still draws the audiences in Lower Saxony. In co-operation with the Staatstheater Braunschweig, Alan Curtis and his Complesso Barocco are offering there a series of three operas by the composer: Giulio Cesare, Deidamia and Ariodante. Curtis and his international cast have already performed Giulio Cesare in Vienna and Paris and Lyon is their next and last station. This is the first time I have heard Curtis and his ensemble, but I probably have all his recordings of Handel operas, of which he is an uncontested advocate. His orchestra has a pleasant warm, polished sound, but his recordings tend to skate in the surface of the drama. That was not my first impression this evening – the overture displayed some raw energy, Cesare had exhilaritingly fast tempi for his entrance aria and his public display of reproof on seeing Pompey’s severed head. I have also found interesting his flowing choice of pace for Non è si vago, here made to sound more flirtatious than lovesick, but the thrill was soon gone. One would never guess from the well-behaved orchestral playing that Sesto is speaking of revenge in L’angue offeso or that Cleopatra erupted from resignation towards death to gleeful triumph in Da tempeste. Although singers arguably have the greatest share of responsibility in theatrical expression in baroque opera, the orchestra is nonetheless vital to create the atmosphere, especially in Handel – and you just had to look at those musicians to see that sometimes they were not in the same wavelength of their soloists, beautifully as they played – and the obligato parts in Se in fiorito and Va tacito e nascosto were indeed superbly played.
The edition adopted this evening required many adjustments – the harp solo in “Lydia”‘s seduction scene was given to the harpsichord, I haven’t seen four horns for the opening choir, Curio does not exist and, quite understandably, some arias have been cut (Sesto’s La giustizia, Tolomeo’s Belle dee and Sì, spietata, Cesare’s Qual torrente, Achilla’s Se a me non sei and Nireno’s Chi perde un momento) and some were shorn of their B sections (Cleopatra’s Venere bella, Cornelia’s Non ha più che temere and maybe Sesto’s L’aura che spira).
Karina Gauvin has been called “the Renée Fleming of baroque music”, and the nickname is apt enough given the roundness and fullness of her soprano, far richer in nuance than most singers in this repertoire. She achieved the feat of producing a particular tone colouring for each aria – lightly provocative in Non disperar, weightily tragic in Se pietà, contrastingly resignated and desperate in Piangerò and exuberantly imperious in Da tempeste (an unforgettable display of technical abandon). Curiously, the more teasing Tutto può and V’adoro, pupille were quite short in charm. She is one of those singers who always sings on the interest and not on the capital, especially in her high register, what is healthy for her, but a bit frustrating for the audience, considering what her amazing resources might be in their full powers. In any case, a must hear.
Emöke Barath’s voice is a bit high for the role of Sesto, but the singer is irreproachable. Her tonal quality is pure and pleasant, her coloratura is fluent, she is a vivid performer, has a good ear for ornamentation and, considering her natural Fach, could aptly play her registers for a more “boyish” effect in key moments. I’m curious to hear more from her. Romina Basso too was an impressive Cornelia, her contralto natural and flexible and her use of the text very expressive. Sometimes, her ornamentation is too flamboyant for Cornelia’s lamenti and she could relax a bit more on stage (her whole posture is often too tense), but make no mistake: she is a very special singer.
I wonder if Marie-Nicole Lemieux shouldn’t trade roles with Romina Basso. Her voice is quite soft-grained in its middle register and sometimes unfocused out of her effort to produce incisiveness in it – and her register break is abrupt. The excruciatingly difficult arie di bravure had their labored moments and her interpretation involves highlighting the text to the expense of melodic flow in a rather Fischer Dieskau-ian manner. When the circumstances were favourable, she could be really touching, such as in Aure, deh pietà. All in all, she has an irresistible personality and is never less than fully committed and by the end the sum its greater than the parts.
Countertenor Filippo Mineccia has a strong high register, stamina and flexibility, but his passaggio is a bit problematic. Johanes Weisser (Achilla) has developed a lot since I last heard him. Now he consistently sounds like a baritone and he sang with panache and very clear divisions in forceful voice. There was something tense in his presence, but he channeled that efficiently into his arias. Last but not least, I was sorry for the loss of Nireno’s aria, for Milena Storti was really, really great in her crisply delivered recitatives in a dark yet focused contralto.