Saturday, March 5, 2016

Andres Mustonen directs a concert performance of Handel's "Giulio Cesare" at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Soprano Claire Meghnagi (photo:Maxim Reider)
Under the musical direction of Estonian violinist and conductor Andres Mustonen, the 3rd Tallinn-Tel Aviv MustonenFest took place from February 18th to March 2nd 2016. Baroque operas were among the special events in this year’s festival, with a fully-staged performance of Händel’s “Rinaldo” by the Estonian National Opera Company and a concert performance of the composer’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” (Julius Caesar in Egypt). This writer attended the latter event on February 27th in the Recanati Hall of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The performance was conducted by Andres Mustonen. Joining him were the Estonian National Opera Orchestra and the Voces Musicales Choir (Estonia), with soloists from both Estonia and Israel.  The Estonian soloists were soprano Helen Lokuta, mezzo-sopranos Monika-Evelin Liiv and Juuli Lill and tenor Oliver Kuusik; the Israeli soloists were soprano Claire Meghnagi and countertenor Yaniv D’Or.

With eight principal characters and one of the largest orchestras for which Händel had written, not to mention the work’s unflagging high quality and enduring popularity, “Giulio Cesare” (1724), to a libretto by Nicola Haym, was surely a fine choice for a festive concert version. Another advantage at the concert was hearing different singers’ interpretation of the same character: we heard Cesare’s arias (scored by Händel for an alto castrato) sung by both Liiv and D’Or, Sesto (originally written for soprano en travesti) sung by Kuusik and Lokuta; Cleopatra was portrayed by both Meghnagi and Lokuta. 

The concert opened with the Ouverture to “Cesare in Egitto”, with Mustonen’s typically vigorous conducting setting the tone for the evening’s performance, this followed by the Voces Musicales singers’ powerful and forthright singing of “Viva il nostre Alcide”. There was a strong sense of the deep enquiry and experience Monika-Evelin Liiv (Estonian National Opera) has in her tasteful and unmannered performance of this work, her voice even and rich in all registers, her lower range strong and abounding in presence. In “Se in fiorito ameno prato” Liiv and Mustonen (violin) duet, converse and intertwine musical strands, her expressive melismas answered by the many personal utterances of his violin. As Cesare, Yaniv D’Or’s dramatic reading of arias of Cesare and Tolomeo went hand-in-glove with Händel’s electrifying characterizations, the composer’s own star-studded cast and Mustonen’s candid approach. Dealing with challenging musical texts and fast tempi, he communicated with the audience, giving expression to fiery moments of animosity, as in “Si spietata”, in which the spurned Tolomeo threatens and insults Cornelia.  

In the role of Sesto, tenor Oliver Kuusik, of the Estonian National Opera, shared his wonderfully rich and powerful timbre, his dramatic flair and audience appeal in “Svegliatevi nel core”, the aria in which Sesto vows to take revenge on those who killed his father, Pompey, the artist later superbly shaping the agenda of revenge on Tolomeo in “L’angue offeso mai riposa”, likening it to a striking serpent. As the manipulative Cleopatra, the pivotal character of the opera, Claire Meghnagi was vivacious and sensuous, performing each gesture, her voice gliding effortlessly into its upper register in “Non desperar” as she sang of her decision to use her beauty to seduce Caesar. In the darker “Piangerò la sorte mia” she crafted the melody line with pensive, exquisite elegance, lavishing feisty intensity on the middle section before returning the heartbreak of the first section with silky smoothness and fine ornamenting. Singing Cleopatra’s love song “V’adoro pupille” and partnered with the serene oboe obbligato, Helen Lokuta, of the Estonian National Opera, created a sense of calm and directness with singing that was natural, polished and richly flowing. Cleopatra’s joy at suddenly being freed by Cesare from impending imprisonment took flight in “Da tempeste il legno infranto”, with Lokuta’s virtuosic vocal agility and lively - sometimes mischievous - facial expressions energetic and energizing. The well-matched timbres of Lokuta (Sesto) and Juuli Lill of the Estonian National Opera (Cornelia) created the empathy of “Son nato a sospirar”. In “Non ha più che temere ques’alma”, Lill depicts Cornelia’s sorrow and self-pity at the loss of her husband and the near death of her son but hope as well, in her superbly woven fusion of music and text.

Juuli Lill,Helen Lokuta,Andres Mustonen (photo:Maxim Reider)
Supported by fine, richly-coloured playing on the part of the Estonian National Opera Orchestra, the evening’s program was charged with energy and excitement as indeed befit Händel’s greatest heroic opera. The audience was enthusiastic.

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