Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Giulio Cesare in Egitto @ Barbican Hall

19 April 2007

What defines a “concert performance” of an opera? A row of singers arranged in front of the orchestra with their noses buried in the score? Performers in evening dress?

Well, the possibilities are endless but one thing’s for sure this performance of Handel’s most frequently-performed opera, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, was in a different league from most traditional concert performances.

This comes as no surprise when you consider that the entire cast, conductor and orchestra have just completed a critically acclaimed run of performances at the Theater an der Wien, in Christof Loy’s staging. Theatricality coursed through each and every performer’s veins, yet without props, and keeping “acting” to a bare minimum, every trait that Handel invested in his characters came across with immense panache.

Conductor Rene Jacobs (having recorded the work in the early 90s) is peerless in this repertoire and the sheer vitality and thrill of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra‘s contribution was a joy to behold. Their playing never faltered throughout the long evening (even with a 7.00pm start we weren’t out much before 11.30pm) and you could see that they enjoyed every minute of it.

It’s possible to imagine a starrier cast for this opera, but when the alternative is a well-rehearsed, properly blended, balanced group of soloists, then I know which I prefer. Hands-down. Every time.

For the title role Jacobs chose the much-admired contralto, Marijana Mijanovic. With her boyish looks and masculine gait she had the requisite swagger for the Roman Emperor, but for me, her voice sounded too manly. She possesses some fearful low notes but at the top of her range she sounded constrained. To my mind, the flamboyance that Sarah Connolly brings to the role was sadly missing.

As Cleopatra, the Argentine soprano Veronica Cangemi produced some exquisitely floated top notes, whilst the French countertenor Christophe Dumaux tore into the role of Tolomeo with gusto in a gloriously over the top performance. If scenery had been present at the performance, he would definitely have been chewing it!

For me the two most outstanding singers were the Swedish mezzos, Kristina Hammarstrom (Cornelia) and Malena Ernman (Sesto). Together, and apart, they produced the most ravishing singing of the evening. Their sorrowful duet that closes the first act held the audience spellbound.

A great performance.

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