The 300th birthday of George Frideric Handel came and went on Saturday, with splendor. From the moment the FM came on in the morning there were ample anthems, bolts of "Royal Fireworks," floods of "Water Music" and dozens of concerti a due cori. Oddly enough, there wasn't much "Messiah."
In this city, though, the celebration's real pie ce d'occasion was "Giulio Cesare" (or "Julius Caesar"), perhaps the most familiar of the 46 Handel operas, performed by the Kennedy Center Handel Festival to an ecstatic standing-room-only audience at the Concert Hall. "Cesare" was a grand choice, brimming with the joy and abandon of this most extroverted of the major masters -- but also full of pathos, especially in the wrenching music of Cleopatra and Cornelia.
It is a very vocal work. Handel did not compose operas with melodic and dramatic continuity so much as he wrote collections of numbers, organized around a story line. It is like the classic organization of the Broadway musical before the gee-whiz producers took it over. Each character has a quota of numbers. There are not really any ensembles in the Mozartean sense, and as a result there are more arias than in "Traviata" and "Trovatore" combined.
Thus Handel operas lend themselves to the concert versions that the Handel Festival has provided here for nine years -- if they have the voices. In that respect this "Giulio Cesare" was almost uniformly distinguished, and in two parts -- the central ones -- sensational.
The title role is a problem in modern times, because Handel wrote it for a castrato. In these more enlightened days, this creates a special problem: do you cast it with a woman, whose range is closer to what Handel wrote, or with a man? This really doesn't matter much in a concert version. And when the woman, as it was Saturday night, is Tatiana Troyanos, one just sits back and takes it all in.
The imposing demeanor of the celebrated mezzo (who has also recorded Cleopatra) was always suitably Caesar-like. She sang impeccably throughout the evening, though her performance seemed a little generalized early on.
That left one unprepared -- perhaps by design -- for the most breathtaking moment of the performance. That came in the last act, when Caesar returns after all have assumed he was drowned in the sea by Ptolemy's men and he announces that he will free Cleopatra and Cornelia or die. The aria, "Quel torrente, che cada dal monte" ("The torrent that floods down from the mountain"), is one of the most intimidatingly difficult display pieces ever conceived.
What in the world was Troyanos, that mistress of heavy mezzo roles -- our Octavian, our Carmen, our Composer in "Ariadne" -- doing in this music? She soon made it spectacularly clear. She launched headlong into an incredible cascade of runs, ornaments, embellishments and adornments that left the listeners almost more breathless than she. The aria was superbly articulated and always right on the beat. Where, and why, has Troyanos been hiding this coloratura technique all these years? At the end, there was no question that she herself realized what she had done -- as she grinned broadly while the audience interrupted the opera with a tumultuous standing ovation.
Overall, though, the most beautifully sustained performance of the four-hour evening was the Cleopatra of the young and promising June Anderson. Cleopatra has the finest music, much of it slow and melancholy, and Anderson sustained those cantabile lines with marvelous vocal control, coloring the phrases memorably and spinning them out beautifully. We have had some magnificent Handel singing here recently, from both Kiri Te Kanawa and Jessye Norman. Anderson's suffers not in the least by comparison.
Over the years, Maureen Forrester has made the part of Cornelia virtually her own. Her voice is not as big as it once was -- though the bottom is still grand -- but, consummate artist that she is, Forrester has adjusted her artistry to the change. Dominic Cossa was a distinguished Achilla. And the other singers were perfectly fine: Susanne Marsee as Sextus, Paul Esswood as Ptolemy and Marianna Busching as Nirean.
At the beginning, the playing of the Handel Festival Orchestra under Stephen Simon was a bit lax, but starting about midway through it picked up steam and became vigorous. One baffling circumstance, though, was the placing of the soloists downstage from the conductor, so they could not see him. Numerous imprecisions resulted.
On the whole, however, the mighty George Frideric, the transplanted German who was the musical glory of Pope's and Addison's and Steele's and Newton's and George II's England -- and who now rests in Westminster Abbey -- would have been proud.