We began tonight’s show with one of George Frideric Handel’s more significant operas (not an oratorio, the classification that much of Handel’s later operatic work falls under), Giulio Cesare in Egitto, commonly referred to as Giulio Cesare. This Italian operatic retelling of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra was written in 1724, using a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, and the role of Julius Caesar was written specifically for the noted castrato Senesino. In modern productions, this role is sung by a contralto or mezzo soprano, or occasionally a countertenor. This is considered to be one of Handel’s finest operas (as well as being among the lengthiest works of the Baroque era, timing in at 4 hours and 3 minutes).
Like many of his other works it was revived in the early 2oth century. Hans Knappertsbusch and Karl Böhm gave early performances of the revised edition in Munich in 1923, and a young Herbert von Karajan conducted it in Ulm in 1930. It is now part of the regular operatic repertoire.
Tonight’s recording is a 1991 recording that features Jennifer Larmore, Barbara Schlick, Bernada Fink, Derek Lee Ragin, Marianne Rorholm, Furio Zanasi, Olivier Lallouette, and Dominique Visse. René Jacobs leads the Concerto Köln.
For our next opera, we shall hear Maurice Ravel L’enfant et les sortilèges: Fantaisie lyrique en deux parties (The Child and the Spells: A Lyric Fantasy in Two Parts). This is an opera in one act, using a libretto by Colette. One of only two operas that Ravel ever wrote, it is only 43 minutes long, but it packs a lot of music into 43 minutes. It can be a bit of a challenge to stage, due to some rather fantastic scenery requirements, so as a result it is not often performed, but it has some rather gorgeous music and is a worthy listen. There are a few recordings of the piece that are commercially available, as recordings do not incur the costs that a full-scale production would require.
Ravel began composing the piece in 1920, after having been contacted by Collette (who is best known for her novel Gigi, upon which the Lerner and Loewe writing team based the stage and film comedies of the same name) in 1917. In keeping with the common practice of the day, he used a number of subtle lietmotifs, similar to the style established by Wagner and used by Puccini, although he also took inspiration from Gershwin and other things going on in American operettas. Poor health forced Ravel to delay completing the piece until 1924, and it was finally premiered in March of 1925.
The work is notable for its orchestral arrangement (something that Ravel was quite good at, noting his arrangement of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition), with the score calling for a large orchestra. Also notable is the duet of cats in the last 1/3rd of the opera, and the work features some very nice choral work at the end.