The libretto of Tolomeo is not as weighty as one might think at a first glance. As well as Ptolemy there is a (non-singing) Cleopatra involved, but these are not the most famous holders of these names. There is a dispute over the succession to the kingship of Egypt, but don't expect anything on the lines of Don Carlo. The issue is resolved in a remarkably, nay ridiculously, peaceable manner as part of a comprehensively happy ending of the kind that London audiences preferred. As for the rest, it is about as average an opera book as I know, with princes and princesses disguised, in the seemingly foolproof way, as shepherds and shepherdesses, and a gratifyingly wide gulf between fierce declarations of intent followed by astonishingly mild and tolerant actions.
Despite all this, Tolomeo lasts for two and a half hours, which is twice as long as La Boheme does. Myself, I would not want it shorter by a single second. There are very few special dramatic effects, mainly restricted to the penultimate scene when Ptolemy drinks what he thinks is poison but which turns out only to be some kind of micky finn, in line with the overall tone of the action. Nor is there much fancy orchestration. You will hear some horn tone in the overture but little or none later, one aria has flutes obbligati and another has a harp or theorbo, and that's about it. The orchestration is for strings and very little else, and I find that no more of a hardship than I do in Handel's concerti grossi, or in Beethoven's string quartets, or in Messiah itself. The truth is that Handel does not try to make this libretto and this story into something they are not. He knows better than to whip up ersatz drama, and instead lets the river of his purely musical inspiration run smoothly and placidly through one low-key incident after another. I followed the action conscientiously with the libretto, but in fact with each successive hearing I found I was taking less notice of it because the music is so marvellous. Nothing as long as Tolomeo could realistically be described as a secular cantata, but for all the real action there is in it that title would do very well. Handel can strike like a thunderbolt, as Mozart said, and there are any number of audacious effects in his oratorios let alone his stage dramas, but what Tolomeo actually put me in mind of was the Bach cantatas that I have been collecting recently.
Bach's style is contemplative with very little to it by way of a dramatic dimension, but where Handel seems to me to resemble him in this work is in letting his own limitless musical invention run without special tricks. The music of each aria is of course appropriate to the sentiments expressed, but you could say that of the Bach cantatas. As for characterisation, the truth is that I soon lost interest in who was who. The music was what kept my attention just as music. There are three alto parts, one soprano and a solitary male voice in the bass role of Araspe. One very striking difference between the styles of these two great Saxon masters is in their treatment of the voice. With Bach, as with Wagner, the inspiration goes primarily into the instrumental parts, but where Wagner is actually very considerate (whatever they tell you) in his vocal writing, Bach can give his singers parts that are extremely difficult because of their instrumental manner. In Handel's vocal writing not only do the voices predominate, the idiom fits the human voice like a glove. There is no choral work in the ordinary sense in Tolomeo, but the final number is, as in Siroe, a choral ensemble. There sound to be a lot more than five voices here, but I can find no further information in the liner.
All the soloists perform admirably in my own opinion. Nor have I any problems with the direction or the instrumentalists, as presumably will surprise nobody when these are the eminent specialists that they are. Likewise the recorded quality is clear and proportionate. The liner booklet is of the thorough and polyglot variety that we are accustomed to with operatic issues of this kind, and the English translation of the essay, by Stewart Spencer, is in genuine English, unlike many even now and apparently very unlike the strange English of Mr Handel himself, as recorded in many humorous reminiscences. Tolomeo is the mellifluous and charming Handel, familiar indeed from elsewhere but rarely for two and a half hours at a stretch without dramatic surprises. The two and a half hours are spread over three discs, one per act, and this seems to me much more satisfactory than trying to squeeze the production on to two cd's.
It seems that Tolomeo was never heard by human ear between 1733 and 1938. I have now heard it 5 or 6 times. This has been my chance, living in the technological era that I do. Applauda ognuno il nostro fato.