123. Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Handel)

Dramma per musico in 3 acts
Composer: George Frideric Handel
Libretto: Niccolò Francesco Haym after Giacomo Francesco Bussani
First performed: King’s Theater, Haymarket, London, 20 February 1724



The ides of March may have passed, but we still have time to stab Caesar.

Here it is: the most famous and beloved opera seria. Keates calls it a “tragicomic masterpiece”; Blakeman “one of the greatest Handel operas”; and Wikipedia “possibly even the best in the history of opera seria”.

Egypt, 48 BC, during Caesar’s Civil War. The great general has pursued his enemy and former fellow triumvir Pompey, in command of the Senatorial forces, to Egypt. Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra are competing for the throne; to win Caesar’s support, the young man presents him with Ptolemy’s severed head. The Roman is horrified, and sides with the beautiful Cleopatra. Ptolemy also has his eye on Pompey’s widow Cornelia, whose son Sesto has sworn to avenge his father’s murder.

Giulio Cesare was performed 13 times in its opening run, starring the castrato Senesino (Caesar) and soprano Cuzzoni (Cleopatra), and staged again in 1725, 1730, and 1732, each time with revisions. The opera was a hit; even the Italians in the audience thought it a masterpiece.

The opera, according to Kaminski, has one of the finest libretti Handel ever set: clearly defined characters, logical situations, and a well-developed plot. Here, he argues, Handel shows that opera seria can serve the deepest passions and most refined drama. Cleopatra is as alive and real as Mozart’s Susanna or Monteverdi’s Poppea.

Keates also praises “the subtlety with which the composer is able to vary his presentation of emotions and shape vital, intensely fallible human figures from the posturing creations dreamed up in a Baroque fantasy version of Roman history, a mixture of Plutarch, Corneille, Venetian romanc and the crotchets of Cuzzoni, Robinson, Senesino and the rest”.

Giulio Cesare, in my opinion, has one great merit: it’s excellent music to do laundry to; I ironed 18 shirts. One’s got to do something over four hours of da capo arias.

This opera, you see, is very, very long, and very undramatic. I’ve seen Giulio Cesare twice: the 1984 Glyndebourne production with Janet Baker, and David McVicar’s camp Bollywood staging (Met, 2013).  Neither held my attention; even though McVicar threw in acrobatics, dancing, and zeppelins, the work is still monotonous.

Giulio Cesare, like many of Handel’s operas, is a concert in disguise. Some of the music is wonderful: Caesar’s hunting aria “Va tacito e nascosto” (I), which has the only French horn in Handel; Cleopatra’s “Non disperar, chi sa?” (I), taunting Ptolemy; “Se pietà di me non senti” (II), praying the gods to protect Caesar; “Piangerò” (III), lamenting her defeat; and “Da tempeste il legno infranto”, rejoicing that Caesar hasn’t fallen in battle. But most of the arias, however tuneful or pretty, are interchangeable.

Then there’s the incongruity of hearing the virile Julius – every woman’s man, and every man’s woman – played by a mezzo or a countertenor, squeaking his greatness. It may be opera seria convention, but here it sounds bizarre. Other castrato (Rinaldo, Oronte, Zelim) or Rossinian travesti roles (e.g. Arsace) are young men, not middle-aged, bald generals.

Boredom isn’t a fault of the opera seria genre per se. Handel’s Agrippina is terrific; so are the Vivaldi operas I’ve heard recently (L’incoronazione di Dario, La verità in cimento, and Ercole su’l Termodonte). All are relatively short (just over two hours), tightly focused, and witty. So far, it’s Handel: one; Vivaldi: three.


CHARACTERS

  • GIULIO CESARE (alto-castrato), Senesino
  • CLEOPATRA (soprano), Francesca Cuzzoni
  • CORNELIA (alto), Anastasia Robinson
  • SESTO (soprano), Margherita Durastanti
  • TOLOMEO (alto-castrato), Gaetano Berenstadt
  • ACHILLA (bass), Giuseppe Maria Boschi
  • NIRENO (alto-castrato), Signor Bigonesi
  • CURIO (bass), Lagarde

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