Carl Heinrich Graun was court composer to Frederick the Great of Prussia, and this opera was chosen to open the new opera house in Berlin in 1742. It was a great success, but Handel's opera on the same subject had appeared less than two decades before, and had anyone been familiar with that one, Graun's might have come as a disappointment. Handel gets under his characters' skins--Cleopatra's eight arias tell us everything we have to know about her, for instance--while Graun (merely) offers some beautiful, well-orchestrated, at-times exciting music. Any composer would have been proud to compose Cesare's heart-stoppingly vengeful last-act aria "Voglio strage", and any mezzo (or castrato or countertenor) would be happy to sing it. Here, Iris Vermillion is spectacular, and elsewhere in the opera she's as heroic, romantic, and colorful as our hero ought to be.
Her Cleopatra, Janet Williams, is a fine singer we've heard little from. On the basis of this recording her voice is handsome, stunningly flexible, and capable of fine shadings. Tenor Robert Gambill is a fierce Tolomeo, whose coloratura holds no fears for him--and the same might be said for Jeffrey Francis as Lentulo, Caesar's confidant. Lynne Dawson is touching as Cornelia and the others are good, with Ralf Popken's wacky countertenor a bit off base as the Arab prince, Arsace. The singers embellish their vocal lines in the da capo sections of their arias. René Jacobs clearly believes in this music and his Concerto Köln plays splendidly, embellishing the instrumental lines with vigor. If this opera lacks the probing of Handel's, so what? It's a joy to hear, and this performance is excellent.—Robert Levine