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
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