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Dessay's Cleopatra

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Handel, Cleopatra (arias from Giulio Cesare), N. Dessay, Le Concert d'Astrée, E. Haïm

(released on February 8, 2011)
Virgin 907872 2 | 65:32
Back when a new Handel solo album was arriving in my box every two weeks, Natalie Dessay, Emmanuelle Haïm, and Le Concert d'Astrée teamed up to make one of the best of the crop, Delirio, a gorgeously performed selection of solo cantatas. The same players are back for a second installment of Handel, featuring all eight arias for the character of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare in Egitto, plus the concluding duet with Giulio Cesare, some introductory recitatives, and instrumental selections. This was recorded in splendid sound last November in the church of Notre Dame du Liban, in Paris, in advance of Dessay's return to the stage of the Palais Garnier in a production of this opera directed by Laurent Pelly. Emmanuelle Haïm, after a disastrous attempt to conduct the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris last year, wisely decided to import her own ensemble into the pit instead. Le Monde's music critic, Marie-Aude Roux, among others, was disappointed by the production, and most critics agreed that Pelly had gone too far over the top, although he is far from the first to do that. For her part, Dessay told Le Figaro that she would have been more comfortable recording the CD after performing the role on stage, that beginning in the studio, where all one focuses on is the sound and vocal technique, was not ideal.

If anything, Dessay sounds better than she did on the Delirio album; indeed, her performance here is better than anything I have heard her do since her surgeries for vocal nodes. She keeps the scoops and other bothersome idiosyncrasies to a minimum, and while her middle and low range are no stronger than they ever were (Dessay also admitted in that Le Figaro interview that the role sits low even without lowering the pitch to A415), the top is at full sparkle. As she did on the Delirio disc, Dessay adds brilliant embellishments and cadenzas: as suspected of that previous recording, Emmanuelle Haïm is credited with these very ornate interpolations, in collaboration with Dessay's coach, Yves Castagnet. The musically demanding and dramatically challenging role of Cleopatra has tempted many sopranos, including recently Magdalena Kožená (on disc) and Danielle de Niese (at Glyndebourne), but Dessay plays it to the hilt in a very satisfying way, at least on disc. She is supported, ably but no more, by mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina as Giulio Cesare and countertenor Stephen Wallace as Nireno. Whatever Haïm does in her conducting, Le Concert d'Astrée sound in excellent form, incisive but not overly amped up, with fine solo contributions from the nine instrumentalists in the Mount Parnassus scene, a musical representation of the nine muses accompanying Cleopatra enthroned allegorically as Virtue.

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