The fact that the role of Handel's Cleopatra includes enough music to fill out a CD, and that, combined with the music's demands for immense virtuosity and versatility, makes it a daunting challenge and Natalie Dessay is impressive in her account of these excerpts. Dessay's singing is not entirely consistent throughout the album, recorded in 2010, whether because some arias are simply better suited to her voice than others, or because she was not at her best for some of the recording sessions. While the agility and precision of her coloratura are always intact, in some selections, such as the arias "Tutto può donna vezzosa," and "Venere bella," Dessay's voice sounds lighter than it does on albums from earlier in her career, and even a little breathy in her lower register. In other arias, though, she conveys the remarkable fullness and purity for which she is renowned. "Se pieta di me non senti" is breathtaking; her gleaming tone is practically voluptuous and she spins lines of miraculously velvety smoothness and searing emotional intensity. "Piangerò la sorte mia" and the substitution aria "Per dar vita all'idol mio" are other highlights that showcase Dessay at her most vocally and dramatically dazzling. Mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina as Caesar is a capable partner for Dessay in several recitatives and the duet, "Caro! Bella!" Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d'Astrée, frequent collaborators with Dessay, bring their characteristic finesse, spirited intelligence, and dramatic urgency to the music, and the realizations of the continuo parts are especially inventive. Virgin Classics' sound is exceptionally vivid and present, with good balance.
As the story begins, Caesar and his men land in Alexandria. He has put down a rebellion by his rival Pompey and chased him to Egypt, where Cleopatra rules in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with her ruthless brother, Ptolemy. Thinking he can gain Caesar’s backing, Ptolemy presents the emperor with a gift: the severed head of Pompey. Caesar is shocked.
This creates an opportunity for Cleopatra to win the emperor’s favor and claim the throne for herself. The action follows two story lines: Cleopatra’s attempt to woo Caesar for strategic reasons, only to find herself romantically vulnerable, and the effort of Pompey’s widow and son, the majestic Cornelia and the earnest Sextus, to avenge him.
When we first meet Cleopatra, she mocks her brother in a brilliant aria, “Non disperar,” saying that while he is fated to lose the throne, he at least may find love. The aria is staged like a dance number from a Bollywood movie. Ms. Dessay does a nimbly choreographed routine with two female dancers who mimic each other’s moves, complete with arm thrusts and head swivels matched to the stabbing rhythms in the music. As a young woman, the petite Ms. Dessay studied to be a dancer and actress. She is in her element in these scenes, executing maneuvers with a droll comic look and loose physicality.
Ms. Dessay has had some vocal setbacks in recent years and a shaky run last season as Violetta in the Met’s production of Verdi’s “Traviata.” If she is still not at her best, she is mostly in good voice, tossing off coloratura passagework, singing with sparkle in the perky arias and with melting richness in the sad ones. Now and then she seems distracted by the task of singing. In the great aria of seduction “V’adoro pupille,” Cleopatra, pretending to be Lydia, a noblewoman who has been robbed of her birthright by Ptolemy, tries to enthrall Caesar with a serenade. Ms. Dessay mostly sang with plaintive beauty. But there was some audible effort in her breathing and caution in her delivery.
Overall, though, she gives a valiant and endearing performance. When she first presents herself to Caesar as the wronged “Lydia,” she is dressed as a flapper in mourning, all in black, with sunglasses, yet holding a cocktail for comfort.
Mr. Daniels, who played Caesar at the Met in 2007 for the last run of John Copley’s dull 1988 production of this opera, is again remarkable, singing with his full-bodied sound, emphatic delivery and technical command. He conveys the emperor’s vulnerability when he finds himself bewitched by Cleopatra or touched by the anguish of the suffering Cornelia. But when called for, Mr. Daniels can make fun of himself, as in a spirited aria when Caesar must rush from Cleopatra’s chambers to avoid the advancing forces of Ptolemy. As Mr. Daniels stops to dispatch bravura run after bravura run, Ms. Dessay’s frantic Cleopatra keeps trying to push him out the door to safety.
The whole cast is terrific. The French countertenor Christophe Dumaux steals every scene he is in as the calculating Ptolemy. His voice is bright, clear and strong. Tall, trim and athletic, he is a natural onstage. In one taunting aria, he executes a full body flip as easily as tossing off a trill.
The mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon brought a plush, warm voice and dignity to Cornelia. The mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is wonderful as Sextus. The character first appears looking like a British schoolboy in a gray suit with knickers. But Ms. Coote, singing with dusky tone and penetrating sound, conveys the challenge this young man faces in trying to avenge his father.
The hearty baritone Guido Loconsolo, in a notable Met debut, is a muscular and menacing Achillas, a general and a power-hungry adviser to Ptolemy. The countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam, also in a Met debut, brings vocal sheen and comic antics as the eunuch Nirenus, the confidant of Cleopatra and Ptolemy. And the baritone John Moore is a vocally robust Curius, a Roman tribune in a Scottish kilt. A kilt? Why not? In one scene Cleopatra appears in jodhpurs.
Mr. Bicket draws a lithe, lyrical and stylish performance of this great score from the Met orchestra, reduced in numbers and complemented by a Baroque continuo group. The violinist David Chan, a concertmaster in the orchestra, got into the act. During one of Mr. Daniels’s arias, Mr. Chan traded ornamented phrases with him while bounding about onstage in a costume, a fez on his head. That is the kind of thing a violinist is seldom prepared for at a conservatory.Continue reading the main story