April 20, 2017
Program notes by Martin Pearlman
Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) was the only opera that Handel composed for the 1723-24 season of his Royal Academy, but it was a huge work and a masterpiece. Coming on the heels of his popular Ottone from the previous season, it cemented the 38-year-old composer’s reputation as the leading opera composer in England. The production ran for an impressive thirteen performances and was then revived (with revisions) in the following season and again in 1730 and 1732. It was soon performed elsewhere in Europe and, particularly in Germany, became Handel’s most popular opera.
Handel had a stellar cast for the premiere, one which included several celebrated singers with whom he had worked a great deal. But it was a cast which was perhaps not the easiest to work with. The alto castrato Senesino, who sang the title role, was renowned as a brilliant singer but also had a reputation as a vain and arrogant man. He had earlier fought with Handel, who called him “a damned fool,” although Handel continued to write great roles for him until their final falling out in 1733. During a public rehearsal, Senesino insulted Anastasia Robinson, who was singing the role of Cornelia, for which, according to one account, her lover Lord Peterborough caned him behind the scenes.
Cleopatra was sung by Francesca Cuzzoni, another singer for whom Handel wrote a great deal of music. She was universally praised as a wonderful artist and a technically brilliant singer, but she too could be difficult. Her infamous rivalry with the soprano Faustina Bordoni led to a fight between the two divas during a performance; and, after she refused to sing one of Handel’s arias for his opera Ottone, he threatened to throw her out of a window. (She sang the aria, and it made her famous.)
Handel’s librettist was Nicola Francesco Haym, an Italian musician and impresario then living in London, who supplied him with a number of opera libretti both before and after Giulio Cesare. For his story, Haym turned to events that took place in the years 48-47 B.C., during Julius Caesar’s campaign against Pompey in Egypt. As the opera tells us, Pompey was assassinated by his enemies, and Caesar established Cleopatra on the throne against the rival claims of her brother Ptolemy. Caesar stayed in Egypt with Cleopatra for a time, and she gave birth to a son, whom she said was fathered by Caesar. But while this general background and the characters themselves (aside from Nireno) are historical, the details of Haym’s story are fictional. His main source was a libretto written nearly fifty years earlier for an opera by Sartori. In adapting it, Haym reduced the number of arias, since arias in Handel’s time were generally more expansive than those written in the previous century, and an opera simply could not accommodate as many of them. Recitatives too were shortened, a practice that was not uncommon in countries where audiences did not speak Italian.
Musically, Giulio Cesare is an inspired work with more than the usual number of famous arias and with remarkably vivid characterizations. Caesar’s great arias show us the heroic soldier on the battlefield, the lover at Cleopatra’s court, and the reflective man at Pompey’s tomb. Every character is treated with subtlety and given a wide range of emotions, but the most remarkable depiction is that of Cleopatra, who begins early in the opera with light, dance-like, flirtatious music but descends to the depths of despair in her profound lament Se pietà and in the aria Piangerò. And it is for Cleopatra that Handel creates the most magical orchestration in the opera. At the beginning of Act II, the queen, in disguise, seduces Caesar by conjuring up the image of the nine muses on Parnassus. Like a halo around her is the sound of nine solo instruments: an oboe and solo strings together with the exotic sounds of a baroque harp, viola da gamba, theorbo and bassoon; this large solo group is occasionally joined by muted strings of the orchestra. It is an unusual sonority, which gives the scene a kind of oriental perfume and creates one of the most memorable moments in any Handel opera.
In this aria and elsewhere, Handel’s orchestration for Giulio Cesare is as expansive as the opera itself. Three times he calls for four horns. Even today they make an impressive effect, but in 1724 the horn was still relatively new to the orchestra — Handel having been one of the first to use it for music other than hunting scenes — and the effect of four horns together must have been astonishing. He also gives a major solo to a horn in Caesar’s famous aria about the stealthy hunter, Va tacito e nascosto, using the traditional association of the horn with the hunt, but going well beyond mere hunting calls. It is the only horn solo in any of Handel’s operas.
© Martin Pearlman 2017