CD Review: Giulio Cesare: Baroque Hero

Raffaele Pè’s Exploration of the Roman Legend

By Alan Neilson

“Giulio Cesare: A Baroque Hero” is the latest CD from the highly talented Italian countertenor Raffaele Pè, who over recent years has been building up a considerable international reputation as an interpreter of the baroque repertoire. This recording is a compilation of arias from 18th-century operas, written by a number of different composers, for the character of Giulio Cesare.

Certainly, it is an interesting idea which allows the listener, not just to appreciate Pè’s singing and the playing of the accompanying ensemble, La Lira di Orfeo, but also enables a comparison to be made of the different Giulio Cesare interpretations presented by the composers.

Exploring a Legend

In many ways, Pè approached this project from an intellectual perspective, one in which he wished to explore the character of Giulio Cesare through the prism of the baroque aesthetic, where variety and contrasting emotions are of central importance. In this respect, the subtitle of the recording “A Baroque Hero” is revealing, for in the baroque, figures are often presented as possessing a character founded upon a fundamental duality; gods take on many human qualities and humans take on certain divine qualities. Likewise, a baroque hero will possess very human frailties, will succumb to amorous passions, display both courage and compassion, determination of purpose and fragility. Thus, the hero becomes flesh and blood.

In fact, in many ways, the concept of duality plays a pivotal role, for we are not simply presented with arias for the character of Giulio Cesare, but arias written for the angelic voices that dominated the opera houses and courts of Europe throughout the 18th century, namely the castrati. Looking down the track listing it is possible to read the names of many of the still famous castrati who first sang the role: Senesimo, Pacchiarotti, Cusanimo, Sciroletto and Salimbeni. The hero as a castrated impotent male, whose voice, now unknowable, but variously described as somewhere between a child’s and angel’s, but with a power and flexibility which is legendary.

In other words a voice which is, at the same time, both totally unsuitable and suitable for a hero, and capped by an ambiguous sexuality which seems so at odds with the testosterone fueled, red-blooded warrior.

Thus it is that Pè is attempting to joust with the castrati, singers whose time is now passed, whose voices we can only idealize, and in which victory lies, not in trying to match the castrati, but in the contest itself, for by focusing on the underlying duality at the heart of the baroque hero, and by approaching it through an historically-informed appreciation of their art, Pè hopes to uncover the beauty and dramatic depth that lies within these arias.

A Recording of Quality

If the making of the disc had an intellectual foundation, its practical effects certainly benefited; for this is a recording of quality, in which Pè’s voice is the highlight. Often in listening to recordings of countertenors the monochromatic nature of the voice, notwithstanding the beauty of the singing, can have dulling effect. This is certainly not the case here, for it is immediately apparent that Pè has the ability to inflect his voice with a variety of shades, and moreover, he is able to embrace soprano and contralto tessituras, giving the disc a greater degree of variety than would normally be expected from a recital by a countertenor.

Moreover, Pè’s singing is underpinned by an impressive level of vocal control, which he uses imaginatively and intelligently to craft each line, whilst maintaining the overall integrity of the aria. Phrases are subtly inflected with dynamic and colorful shadings, and carefully ornamented, coloraturas are not simply used to show off his ability, but are employed sensitively to capture the beauty of the arias, they are short, long, simple, complex, slow or rapid, but never gratuitously showy, likewise embellishment are seamlessly integrated into vocal line, leaps are taken in his stride without any sign of vocal stress and his ability to spin out slow-moving lines is captivating.

Yet what elevates this recording to a higher level is Pè’s interpretative abilities; his voice perfectly mirrors the text, picks out its nuances and highlights the emotional contrasts. In each track Pè fashions a little gem. Every aria is convincingly interpreted, founded upon the authority of its musical and dramatic meaning, the result of which is a wonderful collection of arias of a singer completely immersed in his character.

In the first track, “Va tacito e nascosto” from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto,” the cunning of a hunter is contrasted with the scheming of an evil-doer. In the first verse, Pè captures the deliberate pacing of the hunter, his delivery is firm and purposeful with understated embellishments, underscored by the pounding footfalls of the orchestra. In the second verse, as he reflects on a man bent on evil, his singing becomes less strident, more ambiguous, with his florid ornamentations used to conceal the evil-doers true intentions. Of course, in the da capo section, Pé is obliged to indulge in elaborate vocal displays, which he does so wonderfully, yet it is not at the expense of the text, the hunter’s determination is still present, reflected in Pè’s purposeful delivery.

One of the many qualities of Pè’s singing is his ability to marry his skill in interpretation with technical excellence. A fine example is his rendition of the aria, “Tergi le belle lagrime,” from Piccinni’s “Cesare in Egitto,” in which Cesare consoles Cornelia and upbraids Achilla. In the first part, Cesare attempts to assuage Cornelia’s pain; Pè’s singing is sensitive, his phrasing gentle and comforting, and beautifully articulated. Turning to the “ungodly” Achilla, Pé adopts a more aggressive tone, the voice firmer and more strident. Then returning to address Cornelia, he promises to avenge the death of her husband. Cesare’s emotions are now starting to become heated, which he illustrates with a wonderfully constructed coloratura display, underlined by the whirling sounds of the orchestra. This, however, has only been a precursor, for it is all repeated, but with a far greater degree of intensity, in which Pé unleashes a vocal gymnastic display of scintillating quality, ending with a splendid cadenza, which displays the pristine tonal clarity of his voice, and perfectly captures Cesare’s rising emotional state.

The duet “Son nata a lagrimar” from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” well-positioned midway through the recital produced a pleasing contrast to the arias either side. Singing alongside Pè was the mezzo-soprano, Raffaella Lupinacci, whose warm, seductive voice blended beautifully with Pè’s countertenor in creating a multi-textured, mournful reading. They make a strong pairing, indeed, their voices complementing and contrasting in a convincing reading of the famous duet.

La Lira de Orfeo Ensemble under the direction of Luca Giardini produced a sensitive, refined and beautifully well-paced performance, which fully supported Pè’s singing. The acoustics in the Teatro alle Vigne in Lodi, which was used for the recording, gave the sound of the ensemble, a distant, and at times, even an ethereal quality, which added in no small measure to the distinctive atmosphere of the music and further enriched the impact of Pè’s singing.

Other Renditions

Finally, the success of this disc was also due to the intelligent selection of arias for inclusion.

As well as two arias and a duet from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto,” to a libretto by Haym, the CD contains two arias from Piccinni’s opera “Cesare in Egitto” to a libretto by Bussani, two arias by Bianchi from his opera “La morte di Cesare,” to a libretto by Sertor, two arias from Giacomelli’s opera “Cesare in Egitto” to a libretto by Bussani, adapted by Goldini, and two arias from Pollarolo from “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” to a libretto by Ottoboni, as well as bonus track “Scherza infida” taken from Handel’s “Ariodante.”

The tracks are not arranged chronologically, but in choosing a wide range of composers, written during different periods of the 18th century, it allowed for a range of styles to be contrasted, and provided a pleasing balance to the CD. Moreover, by selecting a number of relatively unknown composers and even lesser known works it uncovers some arias of real quality.

The aria “Il cor che sdegnato” from “Cesare in Egitto” by Giacomelli is a real joy; the composition is relatively simple, but with a pleasing melody which also afforded plenty of opportunities for Pè to show off his skill.

The CD took three years to fully research and record, and it was certainly not time wasted. This is a wonderful recording, a delight on the ear. It is a powerful statement of Pè’s prodigious talent, which showcases his marvelous technique, beautiful voice, and intelligent interpretive ability.


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