The problem with the modern Handel revival is this: his operas have become so ubiquitous that they start to sound ordinary rather than extra-special – and it was for extra-special forces that most of them were composed. There may be more singers equipped to sing Handel than Verdi today, but that doesn’t mean they have the vocal or dramatic instincts to do him justice.
Such thoughts are prompted by the latest of the Barbican’s Handel opera-concerts. Giulio Cesare is not the first to be a spin-off of a staged production: it benefited from the practised repartee of a cast familiar with each other (and more importantly, with the music) from performances at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. But it underlined that ordinariness – of vocal equipment, of stylistic address, of theatrical temperament – has no place in Handel. Maybe we should keep him for special occasions – but then the international operatic merry-go-round might have a crisis, because Handel has mitigated so many of its logistical and economic problems.
Unlike their period instrument cousins from France, René Jacobs and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra are rare visitors to the UK but their CDs have garnered such a following that they drew a full house for Giulio Cesare, even without a starry cast. The orchestral despatch had all the pungent colouring we have come to expect from Jacobs – baroque woodwinds and plucked continuo contributing to a wonderfully tangy spectrum of sound – but the conductor’s involvement stopped at pretty melodies and harmonies. He seemed oblivious to the music’s theatrical range and emotional depth; the Italian words meant little. And so Giulio Cesare came across as shallow, long-winded, devoid of pace, contrast or contouring. With no note unsung and no opportunity for applause wasted, a long evening seemed even longer. There are better ways of presenting Handel.
Marijana Mijanovic’s Cesare sounded more countertenor than mezzo, a voice of character rather than beauty. Malena Ernman’s Sesto and Veronica Cangemi’s Cleopatra merely sketched the coloratura. Kristina Hammarström was a touchingly vulnerable Cornelia, Christophe Dumaux the flamboyant Tomoleo.