(Previous section here.)
A point of gratuitous textual background. Handel’s librettist, Nicola Francesco Haym* based his text on an earlier version of the drama by Giacomo Francesco Bussani; Haym cut several roles and removed some sequences that were (I quote the booklet) “in doubtful taste.” Apparently in the original Sesto disguised himself as his own mother in order to sneak up on Tolomeo and catch him unawares; Cornelia also had – the booklet doesn’t explain why, but I suppose we can all come up with something – to dress up as a eunuch for a while. On balance, I think Haym’s judgment was probably sound.
I mention all this because occasionally you can take a guess at where the cuts to Bussani’s version were made. You know the section in Act II where Tolomeo attempts to seduce Cornelia and she tells him off? (Romina Basso as Cornelia here just about snarls at him in her anger – it’s pretty great.) I never noticed this before, but what happens is that Cornelia basically spits in Tolomeo’s face and stalks out of the room; she appears to hang out in the hallway picking at her cuticles for three minutes and sixteen seconds while Tolomeo sings “si, spietata, il tuo rigore”; and then as soon as Tolomeo has flounced off Cornelia comes right back in to fling herself off the parapet. I think in the original version there may have been other things going on at this point in the opera. Maybe this is where she decided to dress up as a eunuch.
But anyway. It is interesting to play “guess where the cuts in the libretto were made”** but even more interesting than that is Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Cesare. Her performance is entertaining and exciting from beginning to end. I particularly enjoyed angry Cesare in “empio dirò tu sei” ; the ornamentation in the repeat is even more outraged than the first time, but it’s never distracting or gratuitous. (In general, this is a performance where everyone has clearly thought deeply about ornaments in A section repeats.) In “va tacito” her intensity more than balances out the aforementioned rather mellow horn playing.
The Tolomeo in my head remains Christophe Dumaux (live and on DVD) whose utterly batshit Tolomeo is both ludicrous and terrifying. But aside from the odd foghorn-like low note, Filippo Mineccia does just fine in the role here. Both in his case and in general, this is a well-acted performance; there is personality enough to go around and to spare. The various voices did not seem as vividly different as was the case with, say, these folks singing Vivaldi, but the sound is far from homogenous. Soprano Emőke Baráth as Sesto sounded youthfully bright and distinct and (this is not always the case) Achilla (Johannes Weisser) and Curio (Gianluca Buratto) were very easy to distinguish. Buratto sounded as if he was being recorded from the bottom of a very large, very resonant bathtub.
If you like your Cleopatras chirpy and perky and funny, Karina Guavin may not satisfy. She definitely sounds regal, but not necessarily girlish. “Da tempeste” for example is elegant (the orchestral playing is delicate and cheerful) but restrained. It’s not exuberant – Cleopatra sounds very grown up and level-headed, as if the tempest was a gnarly accounting problem at her law firm. That said, Gauvin sings so beautifully (and expressively – there are bits of “se pietà” that would have brought the house down if this were live) throughout the performance that you end up not minding. When I got to the end of this I wondered if she’d ever sung Rodelinda. Turns out she has several times, but she’s never recorded it; there are a few audio clips on YouTube.
*The picture offered by Wikipedia leaves the whole “Haym hair” thing an open question; they’re all wearing wigs.
**Don’t ever get snowed in with a bunch of opera fanatics.