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Program Note
eorge Frideric Handel was a handsome, highly ambitious young man
in his mid-20s when he came to London, saw a new opportunity, and
conquered the fickle English public for the first time. His weapon, the
hastily written Rinaldo, premiered in February 1711 and represented Italianstyle opera seria—“serious” or noble-minded opera, in contrast to the comic,
everyday tone of opera buffa—which had only recently been imported to the
island. Rinaldo in fact was the first example of this type created specifically
for London audiences. Its magical atmosphere and use of spectacular special
effects helped win them over temporarily, but Handel would experience the
ebb and flow of their enthusiasm several times before the public taste shifted
decisively, finally forcing him to abandon opera three decades later. Handel
then found an alternative (and less costly) outlet for his dramatic genius in the
new style of English oratorio he had pioneered.
By the time he unveiled Giulio Cesare early in 1724, the German-born
composer had relocated to London permanently and was riding another crest
of operatic triumph as one of several house composers for the Royal Academy
of Music. The Academy (no relation to the current institution of that name) was
founded in 1719 under a charter from King George I to provide a steady supply
of opera seria on the Italian model, which by now commanded international
prestige (except in France). Handel’s duties as “master of the orchestra” included
procuring casts from among the leading European stars and working with the
company’s librettist, Nicola Francesco Haym, to shape a text maximally suited
to the roster of available singers. “Librettist” in this context meant recycling
pre-existing texts that had been written according to opera seria’s familiar
conventions but also likely to satisfy the audience’s hunger for novelty in the
form of fresh situations and settings.
As his source text for Giulio Cesare, Haym turned to a Venetian libretto
written by Giacomo Francesco Bussani in the 1670s; it had already been set
multiple times by various composers working in Italy decades before Handel.
The process of adaptation, in which Handel is believed to have had substantial
input, involved savvy trimming away of subplots and minor characters as well
as drawing on other Italian sources to craft additional scenes that would give
the composer’s imagination especially free rein: in particular, the memorable
opening sequence of the second act. The opera’s denouement was then
rewritten, according to the eminent Handel scholar Winton Dean, in a way
that “tightened the characterization and converted a haphazard chronicle into
a closely organized drama,” linking together its two principal story lines: the
love and political alliance between Caesar and Cleopatra and the attainment of
justice by Cornelia and her son Sextus for Pompey’s murder by Ptolemy and his
henchman Achillas.
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Program Note
The opera’s full title, Giulio Cesare in Egitto emphasizes Caesar’s presence
in an “exotic,” faraway place where—while preoccupied with waging warfare—
he in turn is conquered by the power of love. Handel and Haym could just as
reasonably have used the title George Bernard Shaw would later employ, Caesar
and Cleopatra, since the unfolding of the relationship of both protagonists is
the opera’s focus. Along with the two Shakespeare plays in which each of these
characters respectively figures, Giulio Cesare shows the capacity of art, unlike
propaganda, to illuminate the blurry realm where history and legend intersect
and acquire timeless significance.
Based very loosely on accounts of Caesar’s campaign in Egypt in 48–47 BC
by such ancient chroniclers as Plutarch, the plot mostly involves a fictional
fantasy, set against this epic backdrop, in which the effects of love are revealed
in a series of intimate close-ups from varying perspectives. Dean rightly points
to the essentially youthful quality of this love and of the other passions treated
in Giulio Cesare. (By contrast, the opera Rodelinda, which Handel composed
the following year—and which the Met successfully reintroduced to its stage in
its 2004 production—explores its scenario of faithful married love with a moving
eloquence that foreshadows Beethoven’s Fidelio.)
In the context of opera seria conventions, this youthfulness was reinforced
by Handel’s deployment of vocal types, with its emphasis on high male voices
as a counterpart to the female singers. The title role was written specifically for
the celebrity Italian castrato Senesino, and Tolomeo and Nireno were likewise
performed by castrati; the Met’s production mirrors this by casting countertenors
in these roles. Cleopatra and Sesto are both written for soprano (i.e., Sesto, unlike
Cesare, was conceived as a “trouser role”). Cornelia was cast for an alto, Achilla
and Curio both for bass. Indeed, Handel composed not only for particular voice
types but for specific singers, tailoring his musical conception of each part to their
individual strengths and vocal colors. He even rewrote the first act substantially
after composing an initial draft in the summer of 1723 when he learned that the
cast originally planned for the premiere would have to be altered.
Revisions were made to the libretto as well—generally regarded as among
the very best Handel ever had at his disposal—while several phases of revisions
allowed him to refine the score and to weave unifying threads throughout the
expansive structure. These include the choices of key and tempo associated
with a particular character’s arias. The composer lavished particular care on
Giulio Cesare, which is evident both in the ambitious large-scale dimensions of
the work and in the loving detail of its musical invention and orchestration.
Handel’s tireless efforts were repaid by Cesare’s highly successful initial
reception, which led to three revivals in his lifetime; for each of these he altered
the score further, taking into account the new casts. We hear an example of
one of these revisions in a new aria he provided for Nireno at the beginning
of the second act (hitherto, like Curio, without any aria). Productions soon
followed on the continent, and Giulio Cesare was among the very first works
that set in motion Handel’s posthumous recognition as one of the masters of
opera, starting in the 1920s, after nearly two centuries of lazy assumptions about
operatic sensibility in the high Baroque. It now holds pride of place throughout
the world as the most frequently produced of Handel’s operas.
Certainly some of the fascination—in Handel’s time and in our own—can
be ascribed to the undying allure of Cleopatra. As Stacy Schiff observes in
her bestselling recent biography of the queen, Cleopatra has had “one of the
busiest afterlives in history,” eventually becoming “an asteroid, a video game, a
cliché, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor.”
But the reason Handel’s musical dramatization of this material has enjoyed its
own remarkable afterlife results from its depth and variety. A still-commonplace
bias against opera seria holds that the convention of the da capo aria, which is
its basic building block (an ABA form), involves a merely formulaic repetition
after the contrasting middle section, with a little extra vocal dazzle sprinkled
on the second time around. Another related assumption is that the “action”
happens in the brief passages of speech-like recitative linking together the arias.
In fact the events that really hold interest and matter for us occur within the
arias. These externalize an ongoing process of insight and reflection (however
hackneyed the actual words of the libretto may be).
Take the sequence of arias for Cleopatra, by means of which Handel
charts the evolution of her self-understanding as authentic emotion replaces
protective artifice. His portrayal of each stage—the illuminating simplicity of
“Piangerò la sorte mia,” for instance—is the musical equivalent of a Shakespeare
monologue: hardly in keeping with the caricature of Baroque opera as merely
a vehicle for vocal display. Even more, the arias are not just pockets of lyrical
beauty but gain substance and significance within the larger network of the
other character portraits. To take “Piangerò” again as an example, Handel’s
subtle touch is to add flutes—associated by convention with mourning—so as
to set Cleopatra’s emotions in counterpoint to the tragic grief that characterizes
the widowed Cornelia.
Handel’s version of opera seria in Giulio Cesare integrates these musical
portrayals within an even larger context of vibrant theatricality. The original
production called for state-of-the-art stagecraft and elaborate costumes to
enhance the legendary resonance and fantasy of the story. Powerful, even
gruesome visuals are integral to its effect—starting with the display of
Pompey’s decapitated head—and Handel made sure to provide some of the
most ravishing music of his entire score for the spectacular scenic picture
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Program Note
accompanying Cleopatra’s first meeting with Caesar in the guise of “Lydia.”
Music itself is “visualized” as an onstage consort producing the celestial strains
that so enchant Caesar. And the choreographic impulses so central to the
composer’s imagination naturally lend themselves to staging.
Opera seria, after all, doesn’t mean “serious all the time.” Giulio Cesare
interpolates moments of playful seduction and irony amid recurrent episodes
of threat and violence. David McVicar’s production has generated widespread
excitement thanks to his sympathy for Handel’s aesthetic, which thrillingly
juxtaposes deeply explored emotional states and a remarkably varied palette of
moods with a sheer delight in entertainment. It’s sad to imagine, during all those
years when an aria here and there was admired but Handel’s operas themselves
faced derision as inherently undramatic fossils, how many were missing out on
a great show.
—Thomas May