Giulio Cesare

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Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, HWV 17), commonly known simply as Giulio Cesare, is an Italian opera (dramma per musica) in three acts composed for the Royal Academy of Music by George Frideric Handel in 1724. The libretto was written by Nicola Francesco Haym who used an earlier libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani, which had been set to music by Antonio Sartorio (1676).

Performance history[edit]

It was first performed at the King's Theatre in Haymarket, London on 20 February 1724. The opera was an immediate success. Handel revived it (with changes) in 1725, 1730, and 1732; it was also performed in Paris, Hamburg, and Brunswick. Like Handel's other works in the opera seria genre, Giulio Cesare fell into obscurity in the 19th century.

The roles of Cesare and Cleopatra, sung by the castrato Senesino and famous soprano Francesca Cuzzoni respectively, and which encompass eight arias and two recitatives accompagnati each, make full use of the vocal capabilities of the singers. Cornelia and Sesto are more static characters because they are completely taken by their primary emotions, she with pain because of her husband's death and constantly constrained to defend herself from the advances of Achilla and Tolomeo, and he consumed by vengeance for his father's death.

Cleopatra, on the other hand, is a multifaceted character: she uses at first her womanly wiles to seduce Cesare and gain the throne of Egypt, and then becomes totally engaged in the love affair with Cesare. She has great arias of immense dramatic intensity Se pietà di me non senti (II, 8) and Piangerò la sorte mia (III, 3). Her sensual character is described magnificently in the aria V'adoro, pupille, in which Cleopatra, in the guise of Lidia, appears to Cesare surrounded by the Muses of Parnassus (II, 2). This number calls for two orchestras: one is an ensemble scene with strings with sordino, oboe, tiorba, harp, bassoons and viola da gamba concertante.

Curio and Nireno do not get any arias in the original version, only singing recitatives, though they take part in the first and final choruses. However, Handel composed an aria for Nireno for a later revival in 1730.

In the 20th century, the opera was revived (in heavily altered form – reorchestrated and revamped with the male castrato roles transposed down for a baritone, tenor or bass) in Göttingen in 1922 by the Handel enthusiast Oskar Hagen. Hans Knappertsbusch and Karl Böhm both conducted it in Munich in 1923, and its first American performance took place at the Smith College of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1927. The first British revival of a Handel opera was the staging of Giulio Cesare at the Scala Theatre in London in 1930, by the London Festival Opera Company, singing in English. The young Herbert von Karajan conducted a production in Ulm in 1933. It has subsequently proven to be by far the most popular of Handel's operas, with more than two hundred productions in many countries.

In modern productions, the title role, written for a castrato, is sung by a contralto, mezzo-soprano, or, more frequently in recent years, a countertenor. The roles of Tolomeo and Nireno are normally sung by countertenors. The role of Sesto, written for a soprano, is now usually sung by a mezzo-soprano.

The work is considered by many to be Handel's finest Italian opera, possibly even the best in the history of opera seria. It is admired for its superb vocal writing, its dramatic impact, and its deft orchestral arrangements.

Giulio Cesare is now regularly performed.

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere Cast, 20 February 1724
(Conductor: – )
Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) alto castrato Senesino
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt soprano Francesca Cuzzoni
Tolomeo, her brother and husband, King of Egypt alto castrato Gaetano Berenstadt
Cornelia, widow of Pompey contralto Anastasia Robinson
Sesto, her stepson soprano (en travesti) Margherita Durastanti
Achilla, Tolomeo's General bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi
Curio, a praetor, Caesar's General bass John Lagarde
Nireno, Cleopatra's and Tolomeo's servant alto castrato Giuseppe Bigonzi

Giulio Cesare is scored for trumpet, 4 horns, 2 oboes, bassoon, flute, first, second and third violins, violas, cello, viola da gamba, harp, theorbo and basso continuo

Synopsis[edit]

First printed edition (1724).
Place: Egypt
Time: 48 B.C.

Like most of his other operas, Handel made several revisions to the score of Giulio Cesare for revivals, adding new arias and cutting others. The aria listing in this synopsis applies to the original 1724 version.

Overture[edit]

As typical of most Handel operas, but unlike most other Italian operas by other composers, Giulio Cesare opens with a French-type overture.

Act 1[edit]

After the overture, the entire cast, except Giulio Cesare, gathers on stage for the opening chorus. (Chorus: Viva, viva il nostro Alcide). Giulio Cesare and his victorious troops arrive on the banks of the River Nile after defeating Pompeo's forces. (Aria: Presti omai l'Egizia terra). Pompeo's second wife, Cornelia, begs for mercy for her husband's life. Cesare agrees, but on the condition that Pompeo must see him in person. Achilla, the leader of the Egyptian army, presents Cesare with a casket containing Pompeo's head. It is a token of support from Tolomeo, the co-ruler of Egypt (together with Cleopatra, his sister). Cornelia faints, and Cesare is furious about Tolomeo's cruelty. (Aria: Empio, dirò, tu sei). Cesare's assistant, Curio, offers to avenge Cornelia, hoping that she will fall for him and marry him. Cornelia rejects the offer in grief, saying that another death would not relieve her pain. (Aria: Priva, son d'ogni conforto). Sesto, son of Cornelia and Pompeo, swears to take revenge for his father's death. (Aria: Svegliatevi nel core). Cleopatra decides to use her charm to seduce Cesare. (Aria: Non disperar, chi sà?) Achilla brings the news to Tolomeo that Cesare was furious over the murder of Pompeo. Tolomeo swears to kill Cesare to protect his rule of the kingdom. (Aria: L'empio, sleale, indegno). Cleopatra (in disguise) goes to meet Cesare in his camp hoping that he will support her as the queen of Egypt. Cesare is amazed by her beauty. (Aria: Non è si vago e bello). Nireno notes that the seduction was successful. (Aria: Tutto può donna vezzosa). Meanwhile, Cornelia continues to mourn the loss of her husband. (Arioso: Nel tuo seno, amico sasso). Cornelia prepares to kill Tolomeo to avenge Pompeo's death, but is stopped by Sesto, who promises to do it instead. Cesare, Cornelia and Sesto go to the Egyptian palace to meet Tolomeo. (Aria: Cara speme, questo core). Cleopatra now believes that having turned Cesare, Cornelia and Sesto against Tolomeo successfully, the scales are tipped in her favour. (Aria: Tu la mia stella sei). Cesare meets Tolomeo, who offers him a room in the royal apartments, though Cesare tells Curio that he expects Tolomeo to betray him. (Aria: Va tacito e nascosto). Tolomeo is fascinated by Cornelia's beauty but has promised Achilla that he could have her. (Aria: Tu sei il cor di questo core). Sesto attempts to challenge Tolomeo, but is unsuccessful. When Cornelia rejects Achilla, he orders the soldiers to arrest Sesto. (Duet: Son nata a lagrimar).

Act 2[edit]

In Cleopatra's palace, while in disguise as "Lidia", she uses her charms to seduce Cesare. (Aria: V'adoro, pupille). She sings praises of Cupid's darts and Cesare is delighted. Cesare is smitten with Cleopatra, and Nireno tells Cesare that "Lidia" is waiting for him. (Aria: Se in fiorito ameno prato). In Tolomeo's palace, Cornelia laments her fate. (Arioso: Deh piangete, oh mesti lumi). Achilla pleads with Cornelia to accept him, but she rejects him. (Aria: Se a me non sei crudele) When he leaves, Tolomeo also tries to win her, but is also rejected. (Aria: Sì spietata, il tuo rigore). Thinking that there is no hope, Cornelia tries to take her own life, but is stopped by Sesto, who is escorted by Nireno. Nireno reveals the bad news that Tolomeo has ordered for Cornelia to be sent to his harem. However, Nireno also comes up with a plan to sneak Sesto into the harem together with Cornelia, so Sesto can kill Tolomeo when he is alone and unarmed. (Aria: Cessa omai di sospirare). Sesto enters the garden of the palace, wishing to fight Tolomeo for killing his father. (Aria: L'angue offeso mai riposa). Meanwhile, Cleopatra waits for Cesare to arrive in her palace. (Aria: Venere bella). Still smitten with her, Cesare arrives in Cleopatra's palace. However, Curio suddenly bursts in and warns Cesare that he has been betrayed, and enemies are approaching Cesare's chambers and chanting "Death to Cesare". Cleopatra reveals her identity and after hearing the enemies heading for them, asks Cesare to flee, but he decides to fight. (Aria: Al lampo dell'armi). (Chorus: Morà, Cesare morà). Cleopatra, having falling in love with Cesare, begs the gods to bless him. (Aria: Se pietà di me non senti). In Tolomeo's palace, Tolomeo prepares to enter his harem. (Arioso: Belle dee di questo core). As Tolomeo tries to seduce Cornelia, Sesto rushes in to kill Tolomeo, but is stopped by Achilla. Achilla announces that Cesare (in the attempt to run from soldiers) has jumped from the palace window and died. Achilla asks again for Cornelia's hand in marriage but is turned down by Tolomeo. Furious, Achilla leaves. Sesto feels devastated and attempts to kill himself but is prevented from doing so by his mother; he repeats his vow to kill Tolomeo. (Aria: L'aure che spira).

Act 3[edit]

Furious at Tolomeo for being ungrateful to him despite his loyalty, Achilla plans to defect to Cleopatra's side (Aria: Dal fulgor di questa spada), but Tolomeo stabs him before he does. As battle rings out between Tolomeo's and Cleopatra's armies, Tolomeo celebrates his apparent victory against Cleopatra (Aria: Domerò la tua fierezza). Cleopatra laments losing both the battle and Cesare (Aria: Piangerò la sorte mia). However, Cesare is not dead: he survived his leap and is roaming the desert in search of his troops (Aria: Aure, deh, per pietà). While looking for Tolomeo, Sesto finds the wounded, nearly dead Achilla, who hands Sesto a seal authorizing him to command his armies. Cesare appears and demands the seal, promising that he will either save both Cornelia and Cleopatra or die (Aria: Quel torrente, che cade dal monte). With Cesare alive and Achilla dead, Sesto's spirits lift, and he vows to fight on (Aria: La giustizia ha già sull'arco). Cesare continues on to Cleopatra's camp, where a lamenting Cleopatra is overjoyed to see him. (Aria: Da tempeste il legno infranto).

In the palace, Sesto finds Tolomeo trying to rape Cornelia and kills him. Having successfully avenged Pompeo, Cornelia and Sesto celebrate Tolomeo's death. (Aria: Non ha più che temere). The victorious Cesare and Cleopatra enter Alexandria, and Cesare proclaims Cleopatra to be queen of Egypt and promises his support to her and her country. They declare their love for each other (Duet: Caro! Bella! Più amabile beltà). Cesare then proclaims Egypt's liberation from tyranny, and wishes for the glory of Rome to spread far and wide. For the final chorus, the entire cast (including the dead Achilla and Tolomeo) gathers on stage to celebrate the power of love and the triumph of good over evil (Chorus: Ritorni omai nel nostro core).

Noted arias[edit]

The banquet of Cleopatra by Giambattista Tiepolo (1743) in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  • "Empio, dirò, tu sei" – Giulio Cesare in Act I, Scene 3
  • "Priva son d'ogni conforto" – Cornelia in Act I, Scene 4
  • "Svegliatevi nel core" – Sesto in Act I, Scene 4
  • "Non disperar, chi sa?" – Cleopatra in Act I, Scene 5
  • "L'empio, sleale, indegno" – Tolomeo in Act I, Scene 6
  • "Non è si vago e bello" – Giulio Cesare in Act I, Scene 7
  • "Cara speme, questo core" – Sesto in Act I, Scene 8
  • "Tu la mia stella sei" – Cleopatra in Act I, Scene 9
  • "Va tacito e nascosto" – Giulio Cesare in Act I, Scene 9
  • "V'adoro pupille" – Cleopatra in Act II, Scene 2
  • "L'angue offeso mai riposa" – Sesto in Act II, Scene 6
  • "Al lampo dell'armi" – Giulio Cesare in Act II, Scene 8
  • "Se pietà di me non senti" – Cleopatra in Act II, Scene 8
  • "L'aure che spira" – Sesto in Act II, Scene 11
  • "Piangerò la sorte mia" – Cleopatra in Act III, Scene 3
  • "Dall'ondoso periglio...Aure, deh, per pietà" – Giulio Cesare in Act III, Scene 4
  • "Quel Torrente"-Cesare in Act III, Scene 4
  • "La giustizia ha già sull'arco" – Sesto in Act III, Scene 6
  • "Da tempeste il legno infranto" – Cleopatra in Act III, Scene 7
  • "Non ha più che temere" – Cornelia in Act III, Scene 9

Recordings[edit]

This list is incomplete.[1]

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ For a more extensive list of recordings, see operadis-opera-discography.org.uk.
  2. ^ For the 2010 George Petrou recording, see OCLC 723942278.

Sources

External links[edit]

E-book

Score of Giulio Cesare (ed. Friedrich Chrysander, Leipzig 1875)