Hopping from label to label, Alan Curtis and his ensemble Il Complesso Barocco have managed to notch up an arsenal of Handel opera recordings, alternating between the composer’s more familiar works – Ariodante, Alcina and Rodelinda – and lesser-known gems such as Floridante and Ezio. Now the group has tackled what is arguably Handel’s greatest stage work, Giulio Cesare in Egitto.
The cast, even by Curtis’s luxurious standards, is remarkable. Marie- Nicole Lemieux’s billowing, fruity contralto is gripping in the title role, whether she’s singing up a storm of coloratura (her Empio, diró is fabulously ferocious) or basking in the reverential stillness of Alma del gran Pompeo, delivered not only with exceptional breath control and tonal beauty, but with moving sincerity. Indeed, that sense of sincerity underpins every performance in this recording.
Karina Gauvin’s Cleopatra – one of Handel’s most varied and challenging female roles – is also sensationally sung (Gauvin’s full-bodied, opalescent soprano is one of the finest of its type) and delicately characterised, from the flirtatiousness of Venere bella to a poignant Se pietà and a breathtaking Da tempeste.
While this dynamic duo might on its own make a triumph of this set, they’re well matched by their colleagues. Romina Basso’s refinement and voluptuous tone are ideal for Cornelia, the beautiful widow of Pompey on whom most of Tolomeo’s court seems to have designs, and soprano Emöke Baráth is inspired as her son Sesto. The role, like most travesti roles, usually goes to a mezzo, but Baráth’s light, sweet tone actually suits his youthful earnestness perfectly, and the dynamic between grieving mother and son is especially convincing – their duet is one of this recording’s most exquisite moments. Filippo Mineccia is impressive as the malevolent Tolomeo, Johannes Weisser a sonorous Achilla and Milena Storti vivid as Nireno, while Gianluca Buratto is a surprisingly ardent, if slightly hooty Curio.
Under Curtis’s fluid direction, Il Complesso Barocco combines the accustomed ease of seasoned professionals with the excitement of discovery: this familiar work, recorded after a series of concert performances, evidently still holds plenty of thrills. Sprawled across three discs and nearly four hours, Giulio Cesare is a long-haul undertaking, but this set of ravishing, energised performances, which capture both the opera’s musical splendour and its monumental human drama, are well and truly worth the commitment.