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HANDEL'S `JULIUS CAESAR' TRIUMPHS ON LASER VIDEO

HANDEL: Giulio Cesare (in English). Valerie Masterson, Janet Baker, Della Jones, Sarah Walker, James Bowman, John Tomlinson, et al.; English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Charles Mackerras conducting. Pioneer Artists PA-90-302 (two laserdiscs).

Sometimes it seems as though the only thing rarer than hearing a Handel opera is seeing one. Even in an era of occasional concert performances, full-scale stagings of the Halle master's non-oratorical works remain few and far between.There are reasons for this, among them a theatrical ethos that embeds most of the drama in the music instead of the stage action. Then the sheer length. Indeed, if performed uncut the typical Handel opera makes for as long an evening as "Lohengrin," without the duels or the mechanical swan.

If you have seen one, however, chances are it was "Julius Caesar," which has made at least two theatrical splashes in recent decades, the first the mid-'60s New York City Opera production featuring Beverly Sills as Cleopatra and the second the late-'70s/early-'80s English National Opera revival preserved on the above-listed laser video.

As such it documents essentially the same production I saw on its visit to this country in 1982, with one important difference. Here the role of Caesar is sung not by Tatiana Troyanos (at one time a notable Cleopatra) but by Janet Baker, who even at that advanced state in her career must be counted the star of the show.

However, the fact that Caesar is sung by a woman brings us to another problem inherent in Handel, indeed nearly all baroque opera. These roles were not written for women - they were written for men, albeit of a type historically unrecoverable, i.e., the high-voiced castrati, the last of whom vanished from the scene nearly a century ago.

Until recent years the solution was generally to transpose the part down an octave for the male voice, a theatrically valid approach that nonetheless robs the music of much of its brilliance. The solution here, by contrast, is to employ a mezzo in the title role and countertenors for Ptolemy and Nirenius. Which may not capture the legendary effect the original singers made but, especially in something like the final duet for Caesar and Cleopatra, gets us a lot closer to the timbral blend Handel intended.

Like others before him, Mackerras has indulged in other textual emendations, including a number of cuts. (I particularly regret the loss of the B and C sections of the da capo aria "Al lampo dell'armi," here "In anger and fury I'll turn on the foe.") Nor will everyone welcome the recasting in English of a libretto whose Italian is as musical in its way as the scoring.

At the same Mackerras brings the work as a whole to life with, where appropriate, zest and style. As does his cast. Baker may be more mature of voice than of yore, but she handles the florid acrobatics of her arias with security and dramatic awareness, if not consummate ease. And although she may be the least secure vis-a-vis the trills, Sarah Walker makes for an otherwise resplendent Cornelia, as she was in the house.

By contrast, Valerie Masterson's Cleopatra, although still a radiant assumption, registers less memorably here than in the theater, where the voice itself shone with greater luster. There is no denying her physical presence, however, or the agility of her "harbor" aria, especially in the da capo ornaments. Ditto the buglike Ptolemy of James Bowman, even if Tom Emlyn Williams' Nirenus is tonally more pleasing and better focused.

Although a shade studio-bound, the production itself remains a handsome one, blending Roman and Egyptian armor with various Renaissance motifs (e.g., the gowns). Depending on the mood, colors range from the somber blues and blacks of the mournful scenes to the golds and reds of the more triumphant episodes.

All of which underlines the music, some of Handel's finest. To more romantically oriented ears, the compass may seem narrow. But within that compass his dramatic instinct illuminates the characters tellingly, especially over the course of several arias, most of which are included.

The result is, like the audio version made around the same time, perhaps the most persuasive recording this opera has yet received, only here with the visual element intact. Certainly I prefer its compromises to those on the RCA recording, which, despite the presence of the Italian text and Sills' more pointed Cleopatra, contains even less of the opera, and that in occasionally reordered form.

Given all those arias, I think Pioneer might have been more generous with chapter stops. The discs are sensibly laid out, however, with Acts 2 and 3 each accommodated on a single side. What's more, the quality of the transfer is high, making the laser edge all the more apparent. And that despite a pressing flaw on my copy that interrupts the closing credits but at least does not affect the sound.