How wonderful to have this famous performance back well re-mastered and beautiuflly presented as part of Chandos' Opera in English series. Interesting that in translation what one loses in terms of the beauties of the Italian language is more than compensated by the sense of a drama which really does develop, a fact which can easily be obscured in teh original as one surrenders to the flow of glorious melody and vocal display. Did handel ever write anything more exquisite than 'Lamenting, complaining' with its delicate and varied accompaniment. That aria is also particualrly beautiuflly sung by Valerie Masterson. The purity of her tone and the accomplishemnt of her technique, always most lovely as a lyric soprano, reach some sort of apotheosis here although 'Flow my tears' is almost as touching. In the faster numbers, Sir Charles Mackerras pushes her a little hard and although she coeps with 'Stormy winds' the dacapo is a bit of a scramble. Nevertheless, an enchanting performance by a greatly under-valued singer. Itis right to give her prominence. Everypone always remembers Dame Janet Baker's assumption of Caesar yet the role is more straightforward than the scheming Egyptian queen and for all her reserves of rich tone and expressive word colouring her voice is a little loose and matronly here. Even so, it's a portrayl of real distinction and the rest of the casting brings home the depth of ENO's resources in the 1980's. There's John Tomlinson, a tad unwieldy in Handel but a massive presence as Achillas, James Bowman hootily compelling as Ptolomy, Della Jones' expressive, boyish Sextus and Sarah Walker's rainbow-toned Cornelia, marvellously plangent in tone and colour except when discolouring a little at the top in some ill-advised ornaments. Her duet with Jones at the end of Act 1 is outstandingly one. Mackerras generally chooses judicious, occasionally over speedy tempi, and has persuaded the modern ENO orchestra to play with a sense of style and Baroque awareness. Quibble one can but ultimately one succumbs to the glories ofthe music and the splendorus of its performance.
There is absolutely no reason why this recording should be at the forefront of those available if you care about completeness of text (this is cut), HIP practice/original instruments, the original language (this of course is in English), transpositions (to accommodate Janet Baker as Caesar) and having a countertenor in the lead role (Baker again - a mezzo-soprano).
Yet this remains in many ways the most compelling and satisfying of versions available. Despite good conducting and other rave reviews, I was less than thrilled by the Rene Jacobs account (see my review) and almost every alternative seems to have some major problem in casting. I admit a sentimental attachment to this recording having been present at the stupendous and historic ENO stage production but this is surely a great performance in its own right. Janet Baker is in her element: noble, plangent, touching, reflective and flexible - this is a tour de force and as convincing as any on disc, matched only by Andreas Scholl on the Danish DVD. The woefully neglected Valerie Masterson is enchanting as Cleopatra in this, perhaps her best role: crystalline, electric, vivacious and very seductive. The rest of the cast is superb: a boyish, impassioned Della Jones, John Tomlinson massive, weighty and authoritative before the voice became too rocky and blaring, James Bowman hooty and hilarious as Ptolemy and Sarah Walker infinitely grave and touching as Cornelia.
The orchestra is occasionally a little rough but Mackerras directs them with such spirit and spring and the whole thing works all the better for being in English - a language hardly foreign to Handel - especially in the recitative where dramatic subtleties emerge. It was this Chandos recording recommended today on BBC3's CD Review, for all that the sound balance isn't ideal and the supposed disadvantages I list above. The only other option is the Copenhagen DVD, not available on CD.
I bought this on the strength of the earlier good reviews, and to prepare myself for the ENO's autumn 2012 production of Julius Caesar. I just love the recording - hard to pick out the ultimate star; in particular both Dame Janet Baker and Valerie Masterson sang superbly.
The flip side was that this year's ENO production failed to live up to the promise of the recording, with several notable weak performances. Even the scene setting was dreadful, and the unnecessary dancing....