Cher Public

Conquering hero

Today is Handel’s 332nd birthday and “Trove Thursday” celebrates with a rare live broadcast of his best-known opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto with three of the previous century’s most outstanding Handel interpreters: Janet Baker and Valerie Masterson on thrilling form as the royal lovers conducted by Charles Mackerras

Both singers have been previously featured on “Trove Thursday” in Handel—Baker as Tirinto in Imeneo and Masterson as Angelica in Orlando, but this 1979 English National Opera Cesare likely represents the pinnacle of their celebrated association with the composer. The edition by Mackerras, decried by many, cuts a good number of the arias for the other characters but presents the parts of Cesare and Cleopatra nearly complete. It formed the basis for subsequent American productions in San Francisco and at the Met with Tatiana Troyanos in the title role but Kathleen Battle took over as Cleopatra (in Italian) at the Met from Masterson who had also appeared in San Francisco.

I have enjoyed a number of Handel operas sung in English and Brian Trowell’s translation here works particularly well. The John Copley production was both filmed and recorded five years after the premiere, but both singers are in noticeably fresher voice on this live broadcast. Della Jones, Sarah Walker and John Tomlinson (due to return to the Met next season) also repeated their roles for the later recordings, but James Bowman replaced American countertenor John Angelo Messana whose Tolomeo I much prefer to Bowman’s.

This is, I believe, the only recording to preserve a Baker Handel role onstage which adds an appreciable frisson to her commanding portrayal. Her besotted “Se in fiorito ameno prato” remains, for me, the greatest performance of a Handel aria I have ever heard amply proclaiming her mastery of the da capo form.

Handel: Giulio Cesare (in English)
English National Opera
18 December 1979

Cleopatra: Valerie Masterson
Cesare: Janet Baker
Cornelia: Sarah Walker
Sesto: Della Jones
Tolomeo: John Angelo Messana
Achilla: John Tomlinson
Curio: John Kitchener
Nireno: David James

Conductor: Charles Mackerras

This week’s offering can be downloaded via the audio-player included on this page. Just click on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

In addition, this week’s Giulio Cesare, last week’s Jérusalem and nearly 60 other “Trove Thursday” podcasts remain available from iTunes (for free!) or via any RSS reader.

  • Armerjacquino

    Masterson in Handel? I can think of someone who’s going to be Very Happy Indeed…

    • Camille

      *Someone* will be doing cartwheels!

      Funny, he’s the first thing I thought of,
      too, when viewing this thread.

      • grimoaldo2

        hahaha and who can you two mean?
        Yes thank you so much for this CC, a treasure indeed as it comes from the first series of live performances (I was present at every one), not the later recordings, both on audio and video, which as you say replaced the original Tolomeo with James Bowman.
        These performances of Giulio Cesare are what opened my eyes to Handel opera, they changed my life!
        Thanks again (downloading and listening immediately!)

        • By coincidence, this live recording, taken from the radio by a friend, was also my first Händel Opera, during my first year in Paris back in 1980. We listened to it over and over, joking that the stage bumps and bangs were gin bottles discarded by the singers…

        • Armerjacquino

          Handel was also the composer the first time I saw Masterson live- that brilliant first-run cast of Nick Hytner’s astonishing SERSE. Her voice struck me as not its freshest in that performance, but she still sang very stylishly and was a witty actor. I subsequently saw her as the Marschallin, a performance which was gorgeous in every way. She must have been a wonderful Sophie- there’s a live ENO recording on Opera Depot but I’ve never dared check it out because Barstow as Octavian is the kind of casting that would have me waking up screaming in the night.

          Masterson is/was a dead ringer for Lee Remick, I always thought.

          • IIRC the only time I actually saw Valerie Masterson on stage was as Cleopatra in Nick Hytner’s Paris production of Giulio C., more recently replaced by Pelly’s.

      • Apulia

        another “only time”--the only time I saw Masterson was in ’82 as Antonia in Tales from Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Chicago Lyric, and quite, quite lovely she was

    • Nyssa of Traken

      Valerie Masterson fans can also indulge in the current BBC4 reruns of The Good Old Days in which she appears frequently in somewhat lighter repertoire.

  • Thanks so much for this. I had forgotten how heart-stopping some of it was. I’m just past the marvellous “Spare my love…”

    • AGH

      Thank you for this. It brought back happy memories of an outstanding performance. It also made me realise how far performances of Handel’s operas had advanced in the preceding twenty or so years. My first Julius Caesar was in Munich in 1959 on the 200th anniversary of Handel’s death. It was not the first of Handel’s operas that I had seen in Germany but it followed the usual pattern in the casting of roles. Thus although Cleopatra and Cornelia were both sung by women every other role was sung by a man: Caesar by Metternich (a fine Amfortas and Pizarro -- and now taking over the part from DFD who sang in the production’s premiere), Sextus by Holm (Covent Garden’s Loge) and Ptolemy not by a countertenor but by Engen (a Sarastro). It was a dark and sombre performance -- with much being sung an octave lower than Handel envisaged. The next production I saw was one given in London by the Handel Opera Society, a company that pioneered the revival of Handel’s operas in England. This, with Charles Farncombe as conductor, mounted one or two operas a year. So, for example, in 1959 it put on a Rodelinda with Sutherland and the very young Baker. The former had already made her debut as Lucia and left an indelible Handelian mark by her singing of ‘Let the bright seraphim’ in the 1958 Covent Garden production of the oratorio Samson. It was Sutherland and the more experienced Elkins, rather than Baker, who, when in 1963 the company mounted Julius Caesar, sang the parts of Cleopatra and Caesar, with the voice distribution already that of the later ENO performances. Now the whole work sounded lighter but, despite the outstanding singing and more spirited orchestral playing, there was still progress to be made and this was demonstrated fully by the ENO production. Masterson may have lacked Sutherland’s exceptional technique but was fully capable of dealing with the role’s technical demands and had a far more engaging stage personality, while Baker’s singing was a class above that of Elkins -- the result was lighter and livelier. But what was happening in the pit really demonstrated the advances that had been made in Handelian interpretation by. e.g. Leppard, Farncombe and Mackerras in the years since the Munich performance. What one heard was almost a new opera and to be reminded of it has been a great pleasure.

      • What happens in the pit these days is often truly excellent, but I’m not sure the casting of countertenors (however famous) as Cesare is as often a success.

        • It seemes paradoxical that this should have happened at the same time as “HIP”.

      • grimoaldo2

        And those early German productions of Handel operas, besides populating the casts with as many basses and baritones as “Boris Godunov” in operas written almost entirely for high voices, would cut the da capo repeats of the arias. But you have to give them credit for bringing the works back to public attention.
        The Handel Opera Society really paved the way for the revival of Handel operas in a more authentic style, but as wikipedia says
        ” the Handel Opera Society was to some extent a victim of its own success. As Handel’s operas and oratorios became more familiar, critical tolerance of the variable quality of the society’s productions diminished, especially after English National Opera’s Giulio Cesare set a new benchmark in 1979.”
        This production of Giulio Cesare at ENO basically killed off the Handel Opera Society,which however I remember with fondness ( not all the way back to the 50’s, just towards the end of their existence), the first time I saw the exquisite comedy “Partenope”.