Dame Janet Baker, in one of her greatest roles, leads a cast of Britain's finest interpreters of baroque opera, and their performance under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras is one of the highest in musical excellence. R... more »e-staged in a studio, John Copley's acclaimed English National Opera production skillfully uses all the technical advantages to create this excellent program. 180 minutes. Janet Baker: Julius Caesar
"This production of Handel's most popular opera Giulio Cesare (1724) was made in 1984 for english television. First, it had been presented on stage by the English National Opera whose speciality is to offer operas in english translation. Although this way of doing operas has been abandoned long ago everywhere in the world, it is still in use at ENO. While listening to Monteverdi sung in English is horrible and unmusical, it is happily not so with Handel's operas originally written on italian librettos. Everyone has already heard Handel's music sung in English, The Messiah, for example. I would have prefered the original version with subtitles, but to my surprise, it felt natural that it was sung in english. The DVD offers optional english subtitles somewhat unnecessary because the singers diction is always perfectly clear.
All singers are excellent, particularly the leading characters Dame Janet Baker as Caesar and Valerie Masterton as Cleopatra/Lydia. Actually, this opera could have been untitled Caesar and Cleopatra, since both characters have the same importance and sing about the same number of arias. Dame Baker's rich mezzo, replacing the original castrato Senesino, expresses the nobility, poise and passion with conviction. Although Miss Masterton's light soprano lacks color, she more than compensate by her dazzling coloraturas and the ease with which she plays the complex character of Cleopatra caught between Caesar and Ptolemy, her brother and associate on the throne of Egypt. Sesto is well sung by Della Jones, but I would have prefered a tenor to play the youthful son of Cornelia, since Handel has rewritten the part for a male voice in 1725. Sarah Walker has not a sumptuous contralto voice, but she conveys all the emotion felt by the widow of Pompey in a very moving way.
Arias are adequately ornemented in the baroque fashion during repeats. The staging seems quite conventional and unimaginative, but adequate and done with precision and professionalism. The fanciful costumes look like a mix of Renaissance, Baroque and ancient Egypt styles. The well known male alto James Bowman, as Ptolemy, looks rather like a buffoon and cannot be taken seriously. On the whole this production looks sumptuous and costly which is well in the baroque fashion. To make that 4 hours long opera fit into 180 minutes - probably not to stretch too much the patience of a wide television audience - the recitatives have been shortened and some important cuts have been done: a whole scene at the end of act II and a couple of numbers in act III. All thoses scenes concerning the deeds of Ptolemy. So if you do not already know the story, you will not understand what's happening in the third act. The DVD provides no program notes. A single sheet of paper gives a list of the numbers with titles, and that's all. A shame! You will need The New Kobbe's Opera Book to get the whole story. Musically, the weak part is the orchestra conducted by Sir Mackerras who stubbornly persists in doing baroque music with modern orchestras. In 1984, you could see everywhere baroque operas done with skilled singers and musicians playing in baroque style with period instruments. Not so with Sir Mackerras. Even his omnipresent harpsichord with 16 foot stop dates from the fifties.The sound of the orchestra is heavy and undistinguished, frankly out of style. The sound on the DVD renders perfectly the dry (with some artificial reverberation) sound of a television studio. Immediately after viewing that DVD, I replaced the disc by a CD version of Giulio Cesare with Concerto Köln, conducted by René Jacobs on period instruments. The difference is simply overwhelming! Why 4 stars? Because this is certainly one of the very best baroque operas! The plot is based on well-known historical characters and events, the libretto is comprehensible, and, the music simply magnificent. Not a single dull moment even during the recitatives! Almost every aria has been used on recitals and records these last 30 years, so you probably know some of that music already. Although this is production of Giulio Cesare is not without weaknesses, I would certainly recommend it: the singers are fabulous; the orchestra has somptuous moments in the overtures and sinfonias; there is a superb chorus at the beginning and at the end, a luxury quite unusual in baroque operas; and there are also two very touching duets equalling the best music in Mozart's operas. When listening to that extraordinary music, you will understand why Beethoven said that Handel was the greatest composer that ever lived."
Dame Janet came, sang, and conquered
E. A. Lovitt | Gladwin, MI USA | 10/04/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is an amazing performance of Handel's "Julius Caesar." I have three video/DVD versions, now and on the other two men sing the title role. However, Dame Janet Baker is absolutely the best Caesar of the lot. Her singing and acting just blew me away. I don't know how this happened, but this DVD is the first opportunity I've had to hear and see her perform. Her soliloquy on great Pompey's soul is worthy of a Shakespearean Hamlet. Distinguished Handel expert Charles Mackerras leads the English National Opera in this English translation of "Julius Caesar." Ptolemy is sung in a splendidly sinister fashion by countertenor James Bowman, who has made over 180 recordings in his career (and not just Baroque music). He's got one of the best sneers in the business and really makes one wish he didn't have to be killed off-stage.Valerie Masterson as Cleopatra has the requisite trills and oodles of presence and gorgeous costumes. She reminds me a little of Beverly Sills, except for a tendency to flat Cleopatra's upper reaches, and a few notes of tin rather than silver.Mezzo Sarah Walker sings a deeply moving Cornelia, wife of the late, great Pompey. Her "Grief and woe all hope deny me" is Handel at his most heartrending, and she sings it simply and poignantly. I can only wish she had been allowed to sing this aria and others in their entirety.Versatile Welsh mezzo Della Jones sings the trousers role of Cornelia's son, Sextus. Her duet, "I was born to weep" with Sarah Walker is a highlight of this DVD--except for the technical grumble that the music is slightly out of synch with the video in this scene.Bass John Tomlinson (who sang the Dutchman at this year's Bayreuth Festival) is a masterful Achilla. I vote for him as the Achilla I least wish to die. He is one of those rarest of basses who can also sing coloratura.This website also sells a Chandos CD version of this production. Call it eccentric and not true to Handel's choice of language (Italian). I don't care. This is one of the first productions to match the original vocal scoring of the two castrato roles, sung here by countertenor James Bowman and Dame Janet Baker. Even though the DVD has been shortened to 180 minutes (the René Jacobs "Giulo Cesare" CD set runs to over 225 minutes), this is a performance of Handel's eleventh Haymarket opera that you will cherish."
Fine Performances; Miserable Video
Benjamin Walter | Nashville, Tennessee | 12/17/2004
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The plot line has been amputated to fit on the disk. Even so, the production gives you short weight. If you don't know the plot in advance, you'll have a tough time making any sense of the last act.
Voices are fine, though Masterson's soprano is so light that it tinkles when it should sparkle. Cleopatra, after all, is a fearless schemer and not a dimwit soubrette or bobby-soxer.
Major complaint is the video. Production is badly lit throughout; lighting flicks on and off almost randomly Colors blotchy and have a tendency to fade altogether or resolve into little color patches that twinkle into view and then disappear. Dark costumes melt into somber backgrounds, creating endless swaths of somber tones from one side of the screen to the other. This is the second DVD of this opera I have purchased, feeling that the first might have been a factory reject. Because both exhibit the same irritating defects, I have to conclude that the quality control staff was out to lunch during production and editing. Pity, because this kind of sloppiness mars what otherwise would have been a memorable performance."
B. Farconi | Rockville, MD | 09/28/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is not a period instruments, correct Baroque preformance and the costumes are crazy, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed this video. The singers really bite into the Handel score: Janet Baker is most intense, and Valerie Masterson is just delicious. She was the first Cleopatra I have seen and the memery of her warbling away the "Star of My Desire" will always be with me. There are many great, and possibly better Cleopatras but this is the one that got me first. Putting aside the sentimental value, this is a really fine performace of Handel's classic, not for purists, but highly enjoyable- and maybe more accesible to many people, since it is sung in English. The picture is not particularly good, and the sound is only OK, but that should not detract you from giving this old chestnut a try."
A new experience
Nancy Eckert | Bellefontaine, OH USA | 09/01/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Yes, I've heard Julius Caesar a number of times via NPR and have two CDs. I confess I gave this DVD only three stars because I don't yet "dig" it. While the costumes and scenery are stunning to look at (mostly) and while I understand that, like Idomeneo, the singers are costumed in what might have been expected in the late 18th C, it always strikes me as quite odd - I mean, all that labor and money when a couple of sheets might do very well.
I'll accept that Dame Janet is superb, but I believe I was expecting a more powerful voice (yes, I know that's dumb). I'm not crazy about counter-tenors, but in this case, I was surprised that I longed for David Daniels.
The English (and I bought it FOR that reason) was very off-putting and I very much missed the Italian. The English, to me, made the opera sound just awfully stodgy. It may take me a while to like this DVD, but I'll watch it from time to time until I've determined that it and I are hopeless or that I really like it."