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J Scott Morrison
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Isabel Bayrakdarian, a Canadian soprano not yet thirty, has turned the opera world on its head in the last few years. She is a woman of stunning physical beauty whose assured vocal technique, intelligence and stage presence have created admirers throughout the world. How fitting that she would record a program that comprises fourteen arias from four 'Cleopatra' operas (out of an estimated total of about seventy written on the subject of that legendary beauty). Bayrakdarian is possessed of a silvery coloratura with spot-on intonation, easy flexibility and varied coloration that perfectly fit the demands of the florid baroque arias presented here. What's more, most of these arias are not well known and there is not a clunker among them. The four operas represented are 'Cleopatre e Cesare' (Berlin, 1742) by Carl Heinrich Graun (c. 1703-1759), 'Marc'Antonio e Cleopatre' (Naples, 1725) by Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783), 'Cleopatra' (Hamburg, 1704) by Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), and, best-known, 'Giulio Cesare in Egitto' (London, 1724) by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).
Graun, Kapellmeister under Frederick the Great, wrote over twenty Italian operas for his patron's new opera house in Berlin. Of the three arias from the first of these presented on this disc, the most striking is the first, 'Tra la procelle assorto' ('In the midst of the tempest') in which Cleopatra responds to the fury of a thwarted suitor. Jeanne Lamon and her chamber orchestra, Tafelmusik, provide appropriately agitated string figurations to support Cleopatra's stern but philosophical rebuff, voiced in roulades of coruscating fioriture.
Hasse, who started out as a tenor, studied in Italy and composed his Cleopatra opera while there. The name role in his 'Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra' was sung by the celebrated castrato Farinelli, and strangely, the role of Marc Antony was sung by a female mezzo! The opera ends with Cleopatra's plaintive song of resignation at her suicide along with her lover, Antony, after their defeat at Alexandria at the hands of the Roman emperor Octavian. Bayrakdarian catches the sadness and resoluteness of the Egyptian queen.
Mattheson, like Hasse, was also as much a singer as a composer and he was the undisputed king of opera in his native Hamburg. He sang Marc Antony in his own Cleopatra opera (subtitled 'The Unlucky Queen of Egypt'). Unlike the other operas here, his Cleopatra sings in German. In her Act III aria 'Was ist der Liebe Brauch?' ('What is love's custom?), after learning of Antony's suicide, Cleopatra feigns compliance by telling the conquering Octavian she will marry him and accompany him to Rome. One can easily imagine this seductive aria convincing Octavian, and Bayrakdarian's tonal allure makes it all the more effective.
Easily the most familiar aria here is 'V'adoro pupille' from Handel's 'Julius Caesar.' It has been recorded many times by illustrious sopranos, including such luminaries as Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland. In this aria Cleopatra, in the guise of 'Virtue' mounted on a throne, sings to Caesar 'I adore you, o eyes, the darts of love; your sparks sweetly pierce my breast.' It starts with a beguiling cavatina, has a brief restless middle section and then returns to the bewitching opening melody. Bayrakdarian sings it simply and intimately as if to be heard by only one listener, Caesar.
Obviously I have not written about the other arias included here, choosing instead to make a few remarks about an aria from each of the four operas represented. Be assured that similar artistry in Miss Bayrakdarian's singing is found throughout this 66 minute disc.