After a promising overture, establishing again just what a stylish Handelian Alan Curtis can be, disappointment sets in quickly with a dreary-sounding opening chorus (Were they tired!?). This is supposed to be a chorus of exaltation setting the stage for Caesar's entry. But I find none of that here. Its sounds quite perfunctory without any of the vitality found, say, in Minkowski's urgent account. The leisurely pacing chosen by Curtis doesn't help things much either.
Then, enter Caesar (Marie-Nicole Lemieux). This is very much a contralto's assumption of the role and, while Lemieux does a good enough job of it, her thickset voice comes at the expense of vocal agility when compared to singers like Mijanovic for Minkowski or Connolly for Christie. I couldn't help wondering whether she wouldn't have been better cast as the lugubrious Cornelia? She certainly sounds far weightier than Romina Basso (the set's actual Cornelia). So, this is very much a Caesar that is given contralto treatment and I sometimes found myself craving a little more athleticism in the voice. Again, I come back to Mijanovic who has a more distinctive vocal personality, whatever the transgressions might be that some have criticized her for.
Karina Gauvin is likely to be a draw card for many looking into this set. While her singing is accomplished, I don't find that she offers up a particularly distinctive Cleopatra. Her aria, Non disperar, chi sa? doesnt come with much sense of scheming or seductiveness. Her V'adoro, pupille, delivered as it is in its somewhat long-winded way, fails to move. It all sounds like Gauvin as we are used to hearing her, not an enigmatic Cleopatra.
A delight of this set is the singing of Emoke Baráth as Sesto. Her bright soprano readily conjures up youthful ardour and a call to heroism that is fully in keeping with the character. I found her vocal embellishments most tastefully done too and I certainly hope we will see more of her in future projects. Countertenor, Filippo Mineccia, as Tolomeo, is a major drawback for me however. His wayward singing, presumably to drive home the impression of a `bad guy' doesn't quite come off. Bass (Gianluca Buratto) and baritone (Johannes Weisser) are competent singers without being particularly commanding or memorable here.
Overall this is a performance that doesn't quite hang together as a satisfying whole. There is a want of `atmosphere' (the drama feels quite shallow) and it doesn't really feel like the plot grows and intensifies psychologically as it moves along.
The recording balance is good allowing us to appreciate orchestral details. I particularly enjoyed the noticeable presence of harpsichord continuo throughout, something that is very much lost in the Minkowski account. And, in general, the orchestra is less congested-sounding than in the Minkowski recording.
In summary, there are some fine things to enjoy here and some disappointments. It will be very much a question of personal taste. The performance does certainly grow on one even if disappointing moments (like the opening chorus) are hard to get around. Minkowski's CD version, even if a little rough around the edges (it was recorded live), still remains my preference, while Christie's visually stimulating account must surely be the best available on DVD. I've generally not been a fan of Rene Jacobs and his often fussy approach, although I recognize that his version also has its fans. Perhaps one day we will be lucky and get a recording by Rinaldo Alessandrini. In the meantime, I certainly look forward to more Alan Curtis recordings appearing on Naïve in the near future.