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Giulio Cesare Recording Review

High Fidelity, The Operatic Genius of Handel Made Plain by Conrad L. Osborne ;January 1968, p.63-65

Ever since the operas of Handel started to return to the stage in the 1920s, Giulio Cesare has been one of the pieces held in high regard. Always known by name through the most famous of Cleopatra’s arias (”V’adoro, pupille” and “Piangerò la sorte mia”) and often produced successfully in Germany, it has gathered a reputation as the best of the composer’s operas-the reasons for which can now be verified by anyone who acquires RCA Victor’s current release of the highly successful New York City Opera production.

The recording-the first opera to be taped in New York for longer than local musicians care to remember-is the City Opera’s production in every detail. Unless I am mistaken, the orchestra has been augmented at one or two points, but the cast is identical with that of the production’s opening night, and the conductor is none other than the company’s director, Julius Rudel. The performance makes an excellent case both for the opera and for the company.

Repeated listening to the complete score brings one face to face, more closely than ever, with Handel’s greatness as a musical dramatist. This has to do not so much with his selection and development of situation and incident (though I think the fact that this opera deals with recognizable characters and situations of established importance is one of the significant reasons for its relative popularity with modern audiences), but with his genius for portraying character consistently and credibly. Giulio Cesare is especially rich in this kind of writing. Each of the characters not only develops and reveals himself through the aria structure, but is pinned down unmistakably by the individual harmonic and orchestral color; thus by the second act we need only a chord or two to tell us who, if not what, the coming scene is about. Cleopatra herself is of course the prime example; she is a brilliant creation. Her good-humored coquetry, her flirtatiousness, her sexuality, and at last her real feminine warmth and profundity of feeling are gloriously present in her music. Cesare himself, Sesto, and Cornelia are almost equally full (the others less so as instruments of moving the story rather than participants in the emotional complications that result).

The scenario that follows from the drawing together of these characters is infinitely complicated. Everyone hankers after someone else, and everyone jockeys for position in the confusion that follows Caesar’s victory over Pompey. Consequently, three or four plots are simultaneously being pursued, with each character responding to each new turn with an aria. Cleopatra wins the throne by being irresistible-not in a fatal way but in an immensely likable way; she just doesn’t mind mixing a little play with her work, and Caesar himself does not at all mind being temporarily conned.

The performing edition used by the City Opera is one that has proved itself in the theatre, though I suppose almost any version could be made to work in a production as beautiful and relevant as that devised and directed by Tito Capobianco and designed by Ming Cho Lee and Jose Varona-an audacious and imaginative amalgam of modern design and choreographed movement in reconstruction of baroque style. On records, of course, the musical decisions assume paramount importance, and I shall note here what they consist of. The performing score is based on the Bärenreiter edition, whose general order it follows fairly closely. The main exceptions are a number of excisions, the transposition of a couple of numbers from the last act to points earlier on, and the addition of a few orchestral snippets from somewhere else (chiefly, “curtain music” inserted so that an act or scene curtain will not rise directly on a patch of secco recitative, plus one or two little flourishes).

The cuts are of two general kinds: cuts in the recitative, and cuts in the repeat sections of arias. While once in a while a single verse (the unadorned A section) is left to stand by itself (Sesto’s “Cara speme” and Cornelia’s “Non ha piu che temere,” for example), the usual pattern leaves in the A and B sections (the latter often elaborated or embellished in some way) and a truncated, embellished repeat of the A section. Only two or three arias are left in truly full form. Though this may raise objections in some quarters. I think that as a general rule it is an excellent way of approaching the problem. The embellishments are usually enough to top off the aria, and I honestly cannot quite imagine silting through a note-complete Giulio Cesare: the piece is long as is, and ABA arias (even when nearly everyone of them is magnificent in its own right) call wear out their welcome. My chief regret with respect to cuts is in the reduction of the role of Achille. He needs his three arias to establish himself fully, and the presence of a comparatively high male voice is refreshing to the contemporary ear. As it is, one of his arias is omitted altogether, while the other two are shortened, the first (”Tu sei il cor”) drastically.

The transpositions include one that seems to me terribly wrong-the removal of “Piangerò la sorte mia” from its spot in the last act to a position in Act I, where Cleopatra is still pretending to be the servant Lydia. This not only makes the aria apparently part of Cleopatra’s put-on (which the music firmly denies) but destroys Handel’s careful sequencing of the arias to unfold gradually Cleopatra’s development from an ambitious tease to a woman capable of great dignity and depth of feeling. I do not see the reason for this decision. And while it isn’t actually destructive, I don’t see much point in the forward placement of the duet “Piu amabile beltà,” unless it is a wish to establish the Caesar/Cleopatra liaison firmly before their enforced parting.

No one is going to complain of a lack of ornamentation; if anything, some are going to complain that it is too much with us in this performance. Not I. Whoever has constructed it (I understand that Mr. Rudel was responsible for at least some of it) has created what seems to me exactly the right feeling: one of “composed improvisation.” It sometimes becomes very elaborate, giving the repeat section of an aria the quality of a variation, in the symphonic usage of that term. This serves a double purpose-it gives the singer an opportunity to take off with something that sounds like his own (and the ornaments are extremely well suited to the strengths of the singers involved), and it lends this section of the aria the feeling of exploring its mood more fully, of literally “elaborating” upon it. Naturally, there is much more of it for the women than for the men; in the days of castrati, composers deliberately relegated their basses and tenors to subsidiary positions precisely because they were not as adept with ornamentation as their female and neuter colleagues. Their audiences drowned under a sensuous flood of ornamentation and variation, which, so long as it is stylistically appropriate and well executed, is the very lifeblood of this music.

In its casting of the opera, the City Opera has made what I believe to be the correct decisions with respect to voice type. Both Cesare and Sesto were originally castrato roles (Senesino was the first Giulio). Nowadays, Cesare is customarily a bass, and Sesto is either a tenor or mezzo. Certainly a male Caesar is required for twentieth-century credibility, particularly when one has on hand a bass like Norman Treigle, who looks like a statue of the emperor come to life. Unquestionably, some of the music is thereby compromised: no bass voice has the agility of a soprano or alto, nor the ability to sing constantly at an inbetween dynamic in what turns out to be the upper-middle part of its range. But the travesti role tradition, quite usable when it comes to young boys in love with countesses or with wives of Field Marshals, is out of the question when it comes to world rulers.

Sesto, who is younger and lower in station, is more sensibly cast with a female singer, and the sound of a tenor voice in the gorgeous farewell duet with Cornelia would be ruinous-the matching of mezzo and contralto timbres is exactly what is called for.

Fortunately, the City Opera has been able to cast Giulio Cesare from its front rank of singers. For most of us who attended the production Beverly Sills’s Cleopatra meant a “discovery” almost as startling as that of Joan Sutherland’s Lucia nearly nine years ago. Through the past decade, this singer had shown herself an excellent artist in a variety of roles, and in such diverse assignments as Philine and Baby Doc had hinted at the qualities finally displayed in her Cleopatra. Still. I don’t think any of us quite expected the classic exhibition of vocal control, agility, freedom, and command she gave us that evening (and on other occasions since). The singing was reinforced with splendid stylistic instinct, grace of movement, and communicative feminine warmth which would almost have been enough by itself-the effect was one of sheer magic. Cleopatra has five major arias, and five times in the course of the evening everything in the theatre was suspended on a fragile (but strong) thread of floating, silvery tone, on the proverbial string of pearls that every singer wants to make of a run, and the most gorgeous of all trills. It was a feast for sore ears, and brought with it the recognition that if the prevailing standard in Handel’s day was something like this, the willingness of audiences to sit and listen to entire evenings of arias festooned with inventions is entirely understandable-a sensuous indulgence of an almost shameful order.

The recording. happily, has found Miss Sills in excellent form, and has captured a healthy portion of the purely vocal side of the magic. It is the last three arias that really take the breath away; the first two are very fine, but there are traces of unsettlement when she sustains tones around the top of the staff. and there are other “Piangeròs” on records that offer healthy competition. But “V’adoro, pupille” is a really melting piece of vocal seduction; “Se pieta,” with its beautiful flights of trills, high suspensions, and beautifully floated harmonic turns is heartachingly lovely; and the “Da tempeste” simply takes off into the ionosphere. A measure of this singing is that Miss Sills trills a hundred times if she trills once, and one never tires of the lovely, truly birdlike sound.

Treigle is, as I have already indicated. contending with a role written for a voice with very different handling characteristics. When these castrato parts are given to low-voiced male singers, what is usually sought is the sort of dynamic fluency that comes of a rather heady technique-Fischer-Dieskau is the best current example. This has the advantage of lending to the music the constant smoothness and give-and-take that it requires, but of course it sacrifices something in manly firmness and depth of tone. It is these last qualities that Treigle has in quantity, and he comes into his own with the martial bite he brings to “Al lampo dell’armie” or with the impressive dignity, the really imperial nobility, he brings to the great accompanied recitatives, “L’ombra del gran Pompeo” and “Dall’ondoso periglio.” He is not always comfortable in that vague vicinity called mezzo-piano, where so much of this music lies, and of course does not embellish in the florid manner of a high voice. But his sense of style and his commitment carry him through everything, and even though the demanding “Aure, deh per pieta” unquestionably “sits” better in the alto range, he makes it a moving scene.

Aside from these two leads, the most impressive vocalism is turned in by Beverly Wolff. Although her sound sometimes grows a bit hectic and her chest register is no thing of great beauty, the full, sailing sound of her upper octave is a pleasure to listen to, and she is capable of the high options and ornaments which lend interest to the repeats. Inasmuch as Sesto has some of the score’s best music, it is fortunate that Miss Wolff’s generous singing is bolstered by musicality and a feeling for the style.

Cornelia is in some respects the most difficult of the female roles. While her music is beautiful, it tends to express slight variations of one doleful mood; indeed she is almost comic. Maureen Forrester makes a better impression here than she did in the theatre, partly because she does not have to contend with the show’s one unfortunate costume and some very awkward dramatic moments, and partly because she is in somewhat better voice. Her firm phrasing and her excellent feeling for this kind of music are of course in evidence and the genuine contralto timbre, as well; there is no doubt, though, that her singing has tended to be increasingly gummy and “inward” of late, and that her way of forming vowels has grown noticeably artificial. It would be a loss if a talent so well suited to this repertory were compromised by vocal problems at this early point.

Spiro Malas sings the comparatively one-dimensional arias of Tolomeo with firm, solid, rather monochromatic tone; Dominic Cossa renders what is left of Achille with his warm, ingratiating high baritone. In the small roles of Nireno and Curio, Michael Devlin and William Beck are first-rate, and Mr. Devlin even injects some color and life into several quite ordinary passages of recitative. The orchestral playing is warm and clean, though it misses the final polish and zip that would lift things at certain important points. The brass section sounds mighty careful, but avoids disaster-the writing for these instruments is always a problem with all but the virtuoso baroque ensembles. Rudel’s tempo choices seem like prevailingly good ones to me; it may be that some of the feeling of what one often terms “judiciousness” is traceable to his leadership, but I suspect it has more to do with the capabilities of his ensemble-a perfectly solid opera orchestra is not quite enough in portions of this music.

While the over-all sound of the recording is more than acceptable, I must disagree with some of the engineering decisions, especially with respect to problems of balance and perspective. There is, in the first place, too much empty-room sound. Wolff, in particular, with her ample, high mezzo often sounds as if she’s singing in a tunnel. The up-close for whispered recitative, then back for the full-voiced passages kind of movement is much too extreme and crude for my taste, and it is ridiculous to have Sills begin” V’adoro, Pupille” so far off (I know she is supposed to be upstage with her vision of Parnassus and whatnot, but when the aria begins, one wants the voice to be there).

But none of these reservations should deter any lover of Handel or any lover of fine singing. And even baroque aficionados will find, I think, that the spirit, if not the letter, of the genre is persuasively present.