Like Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783), Carl Heinrich
Graun (1704-1759) was one of the primary composers of
Italian opera seria in 18th Century Germany. Although he
composed much music in other genres, his reputation
primarily rests upon his operatic works.
Between 1735 and 1756, while under the patronage
of Crown Prince/King Frederick of Prussia (Frederick the
Great), Graun composed “Cleopatra & Cesare,” which
premiered at the then-unfinished “Staatsoper Unter
den Linden.” King Frederick was a fine flutist and took
a “hands-on” role in the production of Graun’s operas
(and his other compositions), often dictating how the
performances should proceed! In fact, the king
deserves partial credit for reforming the operatic genre
beyond the seemingly endless A-B-A form arias that
were commonly found in high Baroque opera seria.
Nevertheless, “Cleopatra & Cesare” was a classic
example of the A-B-A form, bearing strong similarities
to the operas of Hasse, as well as George Frideric
Handel’s London works. This opera contains fine lyrical
writing for the high soprano voice; however in this
recording for dramatic reasons, the roles of Lentulus
and Ptolemy were transposed down one octave,
and tenors Jeffrey Francis and Robert Gambill both
did a fine job.
Typical of other operas of the mid 18th Century,
some of the roles were written for castrati. However,
as conductor René Jacobs indicated in his liner-note
essay, whenever a castrato was unavailable, Handel
(and we can assume by extension, Graun and other
composers) would replace him with a female singer.
This was obviously the case in this recording, although
countertenor Ralf Popken was also used. In fact, the
only “low voice” role was that of Achilla, which was
sung by bass Klaus Häger.
All in all, whether or not the casting choices for these
recordings were made due to expediency and
compromise, the end result was a fine one, supported
by topnotch performances by members of the
Concerto Köln on period instruments. We are
fortunate that the talented countertenor-turned-conductor
René Jacobs has chosen to champion lesser-known
Baroque composers, such as Carl Heinrich Graun,
Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676), and Reinhard Keiser
The recorded sound is excellent, and the set has an
added 52-minute bonus disc entitled, “An Invitation
to the Opera,” containing excerpts of works by
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), Cavalli and Handel
(1685-1759), all under the direction of Maestro Jacobs.
The credit and thanks for this recording should
also be shared with the Harmonia Mundi label for
bankrolling this impressive, “Grade A” project, which
is unlikely to fly off of the music shelves!